For the first time on July 11, the world will observe the International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica. The United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of a resolution to establish this annual day marks a significant step in honoring the memory of the victims and supporting the survivors of one of modern Europe’s darkest chapters.

But the coming days and years are as important as the adoption itself for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the countries that supported the resolution. They must, together, find effective ways to advance public education about Srebrenica and other genocides and ensure the end of genocide denial.

The U.N. General Assembly vote, supported by 84 countries with only 19 opposing, underscores a commitment to acknowledge historical truths and combat genocide denial, despite a vigorous campaign by Serbia and the majority-Serb entity of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, both backed by Russia, to derail the resolution, arguing that it unjustly vilifies Serbs. They even asserted it might lead to regional unrest and violence, and to reinforce the notion, authorities in Republika Srpska, where Srebrenica is located, deployed special police units, snipers, even armored personnel carriers in and around the town on the day of the vote.

The deployment retraumatized the local Bosniak Muslim population, considering that these units are successors to the police forces that the International Court of Justice ruled (p. 162) in 2007 had participated in the genocide in and around Srebrenica. While the U.N. commemoration resolution didn’t identify the perpetrators, the massacres were conducted over the space of just weeks by Bosnian Serb forces, backed by Belgrade, and resulting in the deaths of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

The U.N. Abstentions

The geopolitical tensions (the competition pitting Russia and China against the West) and the divisiveness surrounding the resolution were illustrated by the 68 abstentions in the General Assembly vote. That highlights the ongoing global struggle between remembrance and revisionism, justice and denial, including in the fragile landscape of post-war reconciliation in the Western Balkans. While all of the 68 abstaining countries that stated their stance before the vote clearly acknowledged that the genocide against Bosniaks in Srebrenica in 1995 was committed, they nevertheless, for various reasons, chose to abstain. Some countries cited concerns for regional stability, showing that the Serbian-Bosnian Serb-Russian narrative that the resolution would incite violence partly succeeded, though none of that has materialized in the aftermath of the May 24 adoption.

In Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska, political leaders and the media they control portrayed the results as a moral victory for them, citing the large number of abstentions. But analyzing the votes based on military, political, economic, and soft power, shows that key countries supported the resolution, which had been co-sponsored by Germany and Rwanda. Among NATO members, 32 voted in favor, 1 voted against (Hungary’s pro-Kremlin leadership, of course), and 2 abstained (Greece and Slovakia). Similarly, of the 27 European Union member States, 23 supported the resolution, 1 (Hungary) voted against, and 3 abstained (Greece, Slovakia, and the Republic of Cyprus). It is also noteworthy that all Western Balkan countries, except for Serbia, supported the resolution, leaving political leadership in Serbia isolated in its region. And while not all of the 68 abstaining countries made statements prior to the vote, those that didn’t thereby also did not dispute the fact that the genocide occurred.

Now What?

This year’s annual commemoration will take on newly heightened significance with the United Nations imprimatur. Ultimately, though, for the resolution and its purpose — which is to remember the Srebrenica genocide as a means of combating its denial and preventing all future genocides through education about the Srebrenica genocide — future steps are crucial.

First, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the resolution’s sponsors and others that supported it must take the necessary legislative steps in their countries so that content about the genocide in and around Srebrenica becomes part of curriculum, history textbooks, and other forms of student and public education. The aim should be that current and future generations learn about this travesty and develop awareness of instruments and mechanisms to prevent such horrific crimes in the future.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the war remains a sensitive and poorly covered topic in the education system, with textbooks providing minimal and often biased information. The same applies to the Srebrenica genocide. This situation stems in part from a Council of Europe-recommended moratorium on teaching about the war until historians representing all sides in the conflict could agree on “a common approach.” Amid the politicization of the war in the decades following it, such an agreement has not materialized. But the Sarajevo Canton lifted the moratorium in 2018 at the request of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since then, war-related content, including the genocide in Srebrenica, has been introduced in the canton, though inconsistently so, using outdated and unclear sources, and complicated by the lack of State-level oversight, as educational content is controlled by the entities and cantons. The Srebrenica Memorial Center’s recent proposal aims to incorporate teaching about the Bosnian genocide into both national and international curricula to address these gaps.

Supporters of the U.N. commemoration resolution also should appeal to all countries whose representatives condemned the genocide in their General Assembly speeches but nevertheless abstained from voting, to adopt similar resolutions in their national parliaments. A State can strategically decide to abstain from supporting a resolution condemning genocide denial and glorification of criminals at the global level while supporting it domestically — the discrepancy between domestic and international political behavior is nothing new. Moreover, those States persuaded by the Serbian-Bosnian Serb-Russian campaign that the resolution’s adoption could lead to violence have seen that those arguments were empty.

Genocide deniers and those who glorify war criminals fear most that others around them gain knowledge of the horrors of genocide and the moral bankruptcy of their denial. The resolution should serve as an opportunity for those in Serbia and in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska who deny the genocide to confront the past. Instead, Republika Srpska leaders, astoundingly, are embarking on a new gambit to deny this genocide – they propose to change the name of the town of Srebrenica entirely.

International courts have long established that Serbia not only supported and advanced the perpetration of the genocide but also did nothing to punish the perpetrators. Instead, they continue to shirk their responsibility, leaving it up to international forums and fact-seekers to fight for justice, accountability, and historical memory.

IMAGE: The UN General Assembly votes on the creation of an international day to commemorate the 1995 Srebrenica genocide at United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York on May 23, 2024. The UN General Assembly voted to establish an annual day of remembrance, despite furious opposition from Bosnian Serbs and Serbia. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)