Europe needs to create and integrate a genocide prevention strategy to keep history from repeating itself in the Balkans.
The UK Parliament recently debated the rapidly deteriorating situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), with elected lawmakers warning the country is teetering on the brink of civil war — one that will likely usher in a repeat of the violence that swept the former Yugoslavian state during the mid-1990s and culminated in the mass killing of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in what is commonly known as the Srebrenica genocide. The violence was also marked with systematic rape of thousands of Bosniak women.
Alarmingly, the same political forces from three decades ago are playing the same dangerous game today. The seventh and current Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, mimics the first – the convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic – by weaponising Islamophobia and framing Bosnian Muslims as an existential threat to the Serbian people, while egged on by Europe’s anti-liberal leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The current crisis was triggered by Dodik’s threats to dismantle the Dayton Accords and secede the Serbian entity Republika Srpska from BiH. It was response to a move by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in July to ban Srebrenica genocide denialism, which has reached levels that are getting “out of hand” in recent years because of rising ultranationalism among Bosnian Serbs.
“For all that painful history, the same Serbian ultra-nationalist forces have recently amped up their efforts to both deny the reality of the genocide and glorify the violence that contributed to it,” observes Bosnian American commentator Riada Asimovic Akyol.
“Serbian nationalist songs about slaughtering Muslims are frequently blasted during the day or night in order to terrorise the sparse population of Bosniak returnees in Srebrenica.”
Members of the UK Parliament have described the current situation as “truly frightening”, prompting the government to send a new Special Envoy to the Balkans. But Labour Party MP Fleur Anderson, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the Prevention of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go further.
“There is much focus on diplomatic action and on the strengthening of NATO – and these are essential. But missing from the Government’s response is peacebuilding in communities – also called civilian-led atrocity prevention – and having a genocide prevention strategy,” she recently wrote.
Her words were echoed by the International Development Committee (IDC), which has not only been commissioned to conduct an inquiry into the effectiveness of the UK approach to atrocity prevention within and outside conflicts, but also warns the UK and European Union must include and integrate a genocide prevention strategy to prevent “history repeating itself” in the Balkans.
Sarah Champion MP, and chair of the IDC, says: “Atrocity prevention is cheaper, quicker and more effective than trying to deal with the consequences of conflict…It is so obviously a good investment, not least because we could prevent human suffering and stop situations spiralling out of control.”
Both the IDC and APPG have outlined a genocide prevention strategy for Bosnia that adopts “better analysis systems” to not only spot and identify early warning signs of atrocities, but also prevent them.
The first step, according to Anderson, is for the UK and EU to make a forceful statement condemning genocide denial and remembering the 8,000 Bosniak victims of the Srebrenica genocide, which will pave the way for greater diplomatic engagement from Brussels, NATO and the United States.
Such “engagement” would include the imposition of sanctions on countries that support Serb separatist threats or ambitions and undermine the Dayton Accords; support for the OHR and its UN High Representative Christian Schmidt; and diplomatic and financial building blocks that encourage peace building efforts in Republika Srpska.
But time is of the essence, with Bosnian leaders and academics warning the “spectre of war looms” again, while others, including Hamza Karcic, an associate professor of political science at University of Sarajevo, call for the immediate redeployment of NATO forces to Bosnia.
If Dodik follows through with his threat to establish a Republika Srpska Army and thereby dismantle the joint Armed Forces of Bosnia, it would “formally mean the end of the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, says Bosnian writer Faruk Sehic.
“Then would come the armed conflicts. No one can predict how intense this new war would be, but its consequences would be devastating for all the inhabitants of this country, for the simple reason that we have still not recovered from the trauma of the last war, and we really don't need another conflict. Not to mention all the dead, all the wounded, all the displaced and missing people,” he says.
This is a catastrophe that could be avoided with minimal resources, according to Karcic, who says NATO should “repeat the blueprint of the post-war deployment” by establishing a presence in Sarajevo and securing the strategic town of Brcko in the country’s northeast.
While a return to war and genocide in BiH is not inevitable, the EU and NATO must act swiftly and decisively, given Russia, China and Serbia are coalescing behind the Bosnian Serb leader and vowing to intervene if the West imposes sanctions on Republika Srpska.
Ultimately, the promise of “never again” will remain unfulfilled if European and American leaders have forgotten it was their initial hesitancy and inaction that failed to prevent Serb forces from committing the first genocide on the continent since the Holocaust.
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