July 1995: millions of people in Berlin gaze at the Reichstag building wrapped by action artist Christo. The Belgian royal couple visits Bonn. Meanwhile, in the far east of Bosnia and Herzegovina the worst war crime on European soil since the Second World War runs its course – the genocide of Srebrenica. In the days following 11 July, Bosnian Serb forces murdered thousands of unarmed Muslim boys and men there in a truly horrific manner. Now the 25th anniversary of the genocide of Srebrenica has come round.
Following the end of the cold war, many considered liberal democracy throughout the world to be on an unstoppable march to victory. In the shadow of this spirit of optimism, the kind of nationalism thought to be long overcome once again flared up violently in the Balkans. Srebrenica forms a particularly dark chapter of those wars and conflicts that turned the former Yugoslavia into a huge battlefield. The idyllic location has become a symbol for a relapse into barbarism no longer considered possible, for human abysses and untold suffering. Women and children were persecuted, raped and expelled, defenceless boys and men systematically picked out, murdered and put six feet under – simply for being Bosnian Muslims.
Yet Srebrenica has also become the epitome of the collective failure of the international community as the slaughtering took place before the eyes of the United Nations and the world public. The international community with its UN peacekeeping troops stationed in the region was unable to protect the civilians and put a check on the murderous troops of General Ratko Mladić. Srebrenica marks not just a low point but also a turning point in recent European history. The horrific massacre has shaken to the core our self-perception and vision of ourselves and set in motion a change of thinking not just in Germany. It has changed our view regarding our responsibility in the region and in international conflicts and the deployment of military resources for peacekeeping and the protection of civilians. In view of the atrocities in Europe’s inner courtyard, the hope of “never again having to go to war” proved to be a lofty illusion. Peace and reconciliation in the Western Balkans have ultimately also become a crucial test for the long-term success of the European model.
The genocide of Srebrenica has left in its wake deep wounds to this day. New graves with the mortal remains of those murdered continue to be discovered. This year as well, victims will again be laid to rest by their families at the memorial inaugurated in 2003. The judicial accounting for the atrocities is also nowhere near completion – not in The Hague, where the judgement in the appeal trial against Mladić remains pending, nor in the countries of the region, where some of the proceedings against war criminals are only making sluggish progress and by far not all the perpetrators have yet had to answer to a court. While international jurisdiction describes the crime as genocide, Serbia and Bosnian Serbs consistently refuse to recognise the genocide as such. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina there is to this day no national law penalising the denial of war crimes. Further efforts are also required to establish the fate of persons missing. For this to succeed, all the countries of the region must finally open their archives and actively cooperate as the heads of government of the Western Balkans undertook to do in the London Declaration of the Berlin Process in 2018.
The situation in the Western Balkans remains fragile. Politicians are deliberately sowing discord between ethnic and religious groups, adding fresh fuel to the nationalist fire and stirring up racial prejudices and hatred. Their rabble-rousing rhetoric also does not stop at worshipping convicted war criminals. They are dividing rather than reconciling. The danger still lurks of old wounds and ethnic conflicts flaring up again. Many young people therefore see no prospects in their home country and are going abroad in search of a better future as the reconciliation and change back home are taking place too slowly for them.
Regional reconciliation is the key to peace and change and to achieving good future prospects in the Western Balkans. But reconciliation is a difficult path that demands a great deal of strength and courage from all. The good news is that there are dedicated people throughout the region who are putting their heart and soul into this. They include the head of the Muslim community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grand Mufti Husein Kavazović, who is campaigning for the crimes committed to be recognised in order to lay the ground for reconciliation; the pupils of a grammar school in the Bosnian town of Jajce who for years have been resisting the ethnic segregation desired by the authorities; the many civil society organisations that have come together in the RECOM reconciliation initiative and strive to find a joint future by upholding the memory of the victims of the Balkan Wars; the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) in which inspiring young people jointly promote dialogue and cooperation. And who until recently would have thought an agreement possible in the name dispute running for 27 years between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – now the Republic of North Macedonia – and Greece? Bold politicians have invested much personal commitment to achieve something historical. With this work of reconciliation they have also sent out a crystal-clear message to the entire region: nationalism and populism will get us nowhere; our shared future lies in cooperation and compromise.
As far as the role of the EU is concerned, it is clear that we have a special responsibility in Europe’s inner courtyard. We must do everything in our power to ensure peace, reconciliation and democracy in the Western Balkans. Particularly among many young people, the united Europe of shared values has not lost any of its charisma. We must therefore deploy our power of transformation prudently and show the people in the region that they can count on us. It was all the more important that at the EU summit in May we again made unmistakably clear – even in the middle of the COVID-19 stress test – that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU. And the green light previously given for entering into accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia was the correct, long overdue step to take. Now the initial accession conferences with the two countries need to follow as soon as possible if and when the requirements for this are met. And also with a view to Kosovo we as the EU need to deliver what we have promised and finally pursue the path of visa liberalisation.
We will closely support the countries of the Western Balkans as they proceed towards the EU. This is also a priority of our Presidency of the Council of the European Union during which Germany bears a particular responsibility. We will assist the region in both its efforts to achieve regional reconciliation and in overcoming the economic and social disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The people there need to sense what European solidarity means and what makes our united Europe so precious and unique. Above all we wish to do all we can to support the creation of a strong and diverse civil society and specifically take into account the prospects of young people. For example, we need to strengthen the RYCO further in order to win over the young generation as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation. And with a view to regional tensions we must breathe new life into the normalisation dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, because what we need are sustainable conflict solutions and not dangerous “deals” raising hopes of territory exchanges that threaten to reopen a particularly conflict-laden Pandora’s box.
The genocide of Srebrenica was a terrible watershed. The deep wounds are nowhere near healed and the pain of the scars can still be felt. On 11 July we will pause to commemorate the victims of this barbarism and the many other innocent victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Commemorating gives the victims a face and a voice. It is of the utmost importance that the stories of the suffering of the victims and their families be also made accessible to future generations as this is an essential requirement for preventing something like this from ever happening again. But it is nowhere near a guarantee.
Our Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is right to point out that remembering does not make us immune against wrongdoing and that the evil spirits are today appearing in a new guise – also in Germany and many places in the EU. These spirits despise democracy and fear diversity. They look to division, isolation and hate-mongering as the answers to the key questions of our time, rather than to unification and dialogue. We must therefore also see 11 July as an invitation and wake-up call to do much more. The genocide of Srebrenica reminds us to be more vigilant in our daily lives and to take a more decisive stance against revisionism, nationalism and all kinds of racism. And it makes it incumbent upon us to stand up resolutely against the virus of contempt for democracy and xenophobia in Srebrenica and throughout the Balkans, in Germany and the whole of Europe, in the USA and elsewhere. Always and everywhere!