Commemorating Srebrenica massacre 20 year-anniversary: not an easy exercice for all

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights commemorated the Srebrenica massacre which occured 20 years ago and decimated more than 8'000 Bosnian men and boys. Sadly, Russia opposed its veto to a UN Security Council resolution asking to recognize Srebrenica as a « genocide ».



“How could we – all of us in the UN at the time – have been so foolish as not to anticipate their murder?  How could we have made so many mistakes?  And still today not properly understand them, nor even have taken the right corrective measures to avoid their repetition. “

Those were the words used on Wednesday 8 July by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein - the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights -  to address the Security Council on the UN's failure to protect civilians from the Srebrenica massacre twenty years ago.

Escalation to an ethnic slaughter

Along with the duty to commemorate this painful anniversary, Zeid recalled the UN's will not to take sides in the conflict between Bosnians and Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time, saying that this could be an explanation to why the UN hesitated to use NATO airpower against Serbian forces. UNPROFOR (UNITED NATIONS PROTECTION FORCE) was authorized to “take the necessary measures, including use of force [NATO airpower] in reply to bombardments against the [six] Safe Areas”  but the UNPROFOR Commander in Bosnia and Herzegovina, General Michael Rose, was reluctant to do so because of the “apparent contradiction of having blue-helmeted troops take sides in a conflict.” Moreover, the Bosnian Serb leadership exerted great levels of pressure on multilateral forces as they took UN personnel as hostages in 1994. This hesitation to use force proved to be another fatal mistake as NATO was not given the permission to use airpower against Bosnian Serb troops as it could only be used if Serbian forces fired first on the UN blocking position. As the result, on the night of the 11 June 1994, Bosnian Serbian troops, led by the General Ratko Mladic, seized the Safe Area and slaughtered 1000 boys and men gathered in Potocari. Undetected by the UN, the mass executions continued for two days causing the death of 8000 civilians boys and men.


Lessons learned for better peacekeeping operations

Among the lessons drawn for the UN, Zeid evoked “the inability to anticipate events” which still prevails today in South Sudan for example; as well as “the recurrent failure to understand with whom, and with what, we are dealing.” Despite the complexity of the socio-political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN and NATO forces should not have refrained from intervening. Above all, he insisted on the fact that “the UN must be respected” to strengthen peacekeeping operations. He explained that all the parties to the conflict “must take the measure of this Council [‘s decision … and] believe there will be serious consequences, and no impunity. “ In addition, he unravelled the sacred rule of neutrality or “not taking sides” for the parties at war by clarifying that it does not mean that “all sides were equally guilty, not when scale and proportion were factored in.” This type of reflection contributed to the emergence of an international norm called “R2P - Responsibility to Protect” which was developed after the international community’s failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and in Bosnia. It rules that “if a state fails to protect its populations or is in fact the perpetrator of crimes, the international community must be prepared to take stronger measures, including the collective use of force through the UN Security Council.” According to this norm, gross violations of human rights could possibly justify a humanitarian intervention in the country.

Still no universal recognition of a genocide

While the UN Security Council voted, on Wednesday 8 July 2015, on a resolution qualifying Srebrenica of « genocide », Russia imposed its veto and the initiative was rejected. The Serb government greeted the Russian position by claiming it cleared Serbia of accusations which provoke the stigmatisation of its people. The reasons behind this negative vote might be related to the allegations that the Russian participated in the Srebrenica massacre. Taken the number of Russian graves and the number of Serbs who went to fight in Ukraine, this could be relevant. The strong poltical ties and interests between Russia and Serbia therefore seem to account for the Russian decision to reject the resolution.This news does not pave the way for reconciliation or the establishment of peaceful diplomatic relations between Serbia and Bosnia.


Céline Krebs

Project coordinator at CIPADH



Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. « Remarks delivered by High Commissioner Zeid to the Security Council on Wednesday ». Published on July 8th 2015.

International Coalition for the Responsibility to protect.


Kika Curovic « Bosnie-Herzégovine. Srebrenica : pourquoi la Russie refuse-t-elle de parler de “génocide” ? » Courrier International. Published on July 9th 2015.


« La Russie pose son veto à la qualification du massacre de Srebrenica de « génocide ». Le Monde. Published on July 8th 2015.