The United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly is considering an important draft resolution designating July 11 as “The International Day of Reflection and Remembrance of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide,” a critical step toward global acknowledgment of a harrowing chapter in recent European history. The resolution was introduced on April 17, and vociferous debate already is underway inside and outside the U.N. arena. A vote is scheduled for May 2. Beyond its symbolic significance, adoption of the resolution is imperative for upholding justice and preserving the collective memory of one of the most horrific post-World War II atrocities on European soil.

In July 1995, the U.N.-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica became the site of unspeakable brutality as Bosnian Serb forces systematically slaughtered about 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) later affirmed that the crimes committed in Srebrenica constituted acts of genocide. As the ICTY has noted, “The Tribunal has established beyond a reasonable doubt that the killing of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim prisoners was genocide.”

But as political cleavages have widened in the region in recent years, the legacy of Srebrenica faces continuing threats from denialist and revisionist narratives that aim to distort these established truths. Bosnian leaders, with support from Germany and Rwanda, are promoting the adoption of the draft resolution. Germany and Rwanda have both worked with the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide to institutionalize memory of the genocide. The draft resolution on Srebrenica mirrors aspects of the General Assembly resolution that established the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Member States must stand united in support of this Srebrenica resolution to confront and counteract genocide denialism wherever it emerges. In essence, the draft U.N. resolution transcends mere symbolism; it underscores the international community’s unwavering dedication to truth, reconciliation, and the imperative of perpetual remembrance of the Srebrenica atrocities. The resolution “condemns without reservation any denial of the Srebrenica Genocide” and “actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, including those responsible for the Srebrenica Genocide.” Moreover, the resolution advocates for full implementation of the Genocide Convention to prevent and punish such crimes, and for practical measures such as education and public awareness programs to safeguard historical facts, and prevent the revisionism that could lead to future atrocities.

Persistent Denial of the Srebrenica Genocide

Genocide denial remains persistent in the region. In Srebrenica, the infamous Kravica warehouse stands as a chilling symbol of the brutality of the massacres and the brutality of denial. Bosnian Serb forces forcibly marched more than 1 in 8 Srebrenica victims to this warehouse, where they unleashed a torrent of violence upon unarmed Bosniaks. One survivor recounted the horrors before the ICTY, saying, “Nowhere could you stand on the concrete floor without stepping on a dead body. The dead bodies had covered the entire concrete.”

Today, the local government in Srebrenica, under Bosnian Serb control, is seeking to convert the Kravica warehouse into some kind of entrepreneurial hub, erasing its dark history. We saw the exterior renovations two years ago, though authorities wouldn’t allow us inside. One of us (Hikmet) passed the warehouse a few weeks ago and saw that it has largely been restored, and the mayor apparently plans to rent it out to entrepreneurs. So, instead of being a site for remembrance and education about past atrocities, the warehouse has been sanitized and repurposed. This act of normalization is akin to the unthinkable notion of transforming Auschwitz-Birkenau into a tech hub; it demonstrates a profound disregard for the solemnity of historical memory. The prevalence of murals and graffiti venerating genocidal Bosnian Serb figures such as General Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić — two of the so-called Butchers of the Balkans – in places like Belgrade (Serbia) and Banja Luka (BiH) further reflects the normalization of denialism.

The most recent Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report, covering May 2022 to May 2023 and published by the Srebrenica Memorial Center, highlighted 90 documented instances of genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) and the wider region. This number represents a significant decrease from the 693 reported incidents the previous year. The decline may be due in part to a ban imposed in 2021 on genocide denial by then-High Representative Valentin Inzko, utilizing the international community’s “Bonn Powers” to enforce the provisions of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the war. The prohibition makes certain acts of genocide denial punishable by up to five years imprisonment, though no indictments had been issued at all.

But any optimism about the decline in reported incidents is tempered by other dynamics. It is impossible for the report to capture day-to-day genocide denial. For example, in classrooms every day, the Srebrenica Genocide is conspicuously absent from Bosnian Serb history textbooks, effectively erasing one of the most significant atrocities of the war period from educational discourse while the architects of the genocide are represented as national heroes. Bosnian Serb war veterans are currently lobbying to even further distort historical narratives by revising history textbooks in Republika Srpska (known as the RS), one of two “entities” in Bosnia created by the Dayton Agreement – this one majority-Serb, the other known as the Federation and majority Muslim (Bosniak) and Croat. These veterans are aiming for changes that would explicitly glorify the actions of the Army of Republika Srpska. Across Bosnia, more than 100,000 people – primarily Bosniaks – died during the nearly four-year war.

Denialist Narratives Spread

At the same time, influential figures throughout the Balkans continue to propagate denialist narratives. Following the ban on genocide denialism in Bosnia, then-Prime Minister Ana Brnabić in neighboring Serbia – she’s now president of the National Assembly and long-aligned with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić — condemned the decision as “bad news,” warning that it would deepen divisions in Bosnia, where their ally, Dodik, has long promoted genocide denial and agitated for secession of the RS entity.

Efforts to commemorate the Srebrenica Genocide at the U.N. have been met with resistance, notably in 2015 when Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution to commemorate the genocide. This veto was emblematic of broader geopolitical strategies that are being echoed in the current debate over the new resolution. Russia and Serbia are capitalizing on prevalent anti-Western and anti-American sentiments to mobilize a handful of countries in the 193-member General Assembly against the resolution, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, and North Korea. Vučić apparently plans a trip to the U.N. next week to lobby against the resolution, and in Bosnia, the RS Parliament just yesterday adopted a 2021 “expert” report denying that the Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide.

Looking ahead, the 30th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide next year will likely fuel further denialism amid ongoing efforts to rewrite history and evade accountability. Serbia’s historical role in supporting Bosnian Serbs during the war remains a contentious issue. Vučić himself promoted the idea of “Greater Serbia” during the Bosnian war, a concept that provided the ideological impetus for the atrocities committed in BiH and continue to haunt the region.

Moreover, atrocity denial in the Balkans extends beyond the Srebrenica Genocide. It remains a pervasive issue that hinders efforts to address lesser-known crimes of the 1990s conflicts. A prime example is the Serbian opposition figure Nikola Sandulović’s allegation that he was tortured by Vučić’s Secret Service merely for apologizing for crimes against Kosovo Albanians during the 1999 Kosovo war. The case is now the subject of a submission to the United Nations Committee Against Torture on his behalf.

Countering Denial While Honoring Victims and Rule of Law

A U.N. resolution to commemorate the Srebrenica Genocide would elevate the imperative of recognition to a global level, providing a robust counterpoint to denialism and reaffirming the historical truths for educational and commemorative endeavors worldwide. It would not only honor the memory of Srebrenica victims and their families, who continue to grapple with the enduring trauma and loss, but also would contribute significantly to peace and reconciliation efforts in the region, fostering stability in an area still scarred by the legacies of conflict. Acknowledgment of past crimes is essential for fostering trust and cooperation within Bosnia-Herzegovina and across the Balkans.

Furthermore, adoption would underscore the U.N.’s role in upholding human rights and the rule of law, demonstrating that the international community remains steadfast in its condemnation of such atrocities. The resolution would symbolize a collective determination to seek justice for the victims and to unequivocally oppose genocide in all its manifestations.

The educational impact of such a resolution also cannot be overstated. It would bolster global educational efforts surrounding the Srebrenica Genocide, ensuring that future generations gain a comprehensive understanding of the consequences of hatred and intolerance.

More than a mere act of remembrance, this U.N. resolution is a long time coming and represents a forward-looking promise to learn from past atrocities and redouble efforts to prevent their recurrence.

IMAGE: A Bosnian Muslim woman and survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide walks through the graveyard of the memorial cemetery in the village of Potocari, near Eastern-Bosnian town of Srebrenica, on July 11, 2023. On the 28th anniversary of the massacre, 31 newly identified, complete or partial human remains were put to final rest. Bodies are identified as those belonging to Bosnian Muslim victims of a Bosnian Serb offensive in July 1995 with the aim of seizing the previously declared United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica and the surrounding villages. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys were later found buried in mass graves, some of them discovered years after the war ended.  (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)