Fifteen years ago today, thousands of Muslims were being slaughtered in Europe. Some were killed opportunistically, but most were killed in a full-scale military operation: hands tied and blindfolded, they were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot in the back.
In other cases, rather than bussing them to mass grave locations, their captors chose to murder them were they were detained – slaughtering them by the hundreds at a warehouse and theater, by volleys of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. Later, earth-moving equipment would be used to remove the dead – and perhaps some living – and deposit them into other mass graves.
It is estimated that over 8,000 Muslims were executed after the July 11, 1995, fall of Srebrenica, Bosnia, to the Bosnian Serbs. Like many of recent history’s slaughters, the international community was already present. A battalion of Dutch U.N. peacekeepers was responsible for protecting the first U.N.-declared “safe area” in Srebrenica. As the Bosnian Serb Army advanced on the city, U.N. officials declined to allow NATO warplanes to intervene until it was too late. The Serbs took Srebrenica without a fight and thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to what they thought was the protection of the U.N. base in Potocari.
Rather than offering a safe haven, the United Nations expelled fearful Muslims from their base and watched as another European genocide unfolded. In a scene evocative of Schindler’s List–a case of life imitating art, imitating life–families were torn apart under the watchful eyes of the international community. Men and boys were separated from women and small children, never to be seen again.
I was one of the U.N. employees involved in the world’s belated response to that massacre. From 2001 to 2003, I worked as a prosecution attorney at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where I helped investigate and prosecute the Srebrenica genocide. There, I met with survivors who had two hopes. The first was to be reunited with their loved ones. The second, however, was to see criminal prosecutions–not just of the perpetrators of genocide, but of the U.N. and Dutch officers that abandoned them to the Serbs.
Every year, international diplomats pause to remember the world’s most recent genocides. This week, we mark the fifteenth anniversary of the tragedy at Srebrenica. Yet, despite the memorials and pretty words, mass crimes are a reality in many parts of our world, including those on-going in Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. While dignitaries repeat their promises to “never forget,” much of the world stands-by and watches as mass crimes continue to be perpetrated.
It was never supposed to be like that. In the wake of World War II, after six million Jews were slaughtered in the Holocaust, the world united to form the United Nations, an international institution that would serve to protect against the darkest sides of humanity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish lawyer who coined the term “genocide,” worked within this new institution to expose this kind of mass murder as the most heinous crime of crimes. In 1948, his efforts were rewarded when the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Within a generation, however, after the self-congratulatory applause of international diplomats died down, much of the United Nations stood by and watched as the history of the Holocaust repeated itself–not just once, but twice–first in Rwanda and then, in Srebrenica.
Sadly, the passage of time only seems to bring new slaughters in different corners of the word. The crimes in the Darfur region of Sudan have prompted world-wide outrage, and even an International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir for genocide, but it has not prompted a halt to the suffering in Darfur, or the end to Bashir’s power in Sudan. And though we might pause to acknowledge ‘International Justice Day’ this week, which celebrates the ICC and its efforts to end impunity for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, such days have yet to impact the atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a decades-long conflict is fueled and funded by mineral resources used to manufacture our favorite smartphones.
The Enough Project’s “Raise Hope For Congo” campaign reports that “profit from the mineral trade is one of the main motives for armed groups on all sides of the conflict in eastern Congo – the deadliest since World War II.” Instead of waiting for diplomats to take action, “we must raise our collective voice as consumers and demand conflict-free electronics. By pressuring electronics companies to remove conflict minerals from their supply chains, we can help remove fuel from the fire in Congo.”
We say we will “never forget” genocide and mass murder. But each time we turn our backs to the current slaughters, we intentionally forget the horror that humans can inflict upon their neighbors. We forget the richness of humankind that is sacrificed to hate–and perhaps even worse, that which is sacrificed to inaction. Let us hope that our leaders recognize their responsibility and take action globally, and we recognize our responsibility and take action locally.
Mark V. Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Gen. Radislav Krstic (Srebrenica) trial and investigative teams at the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and is a partner at Ward & Ward PLLC, where he works on international law matters.