Our European Regional MA Programme in Democracy and Human Rights in SEE (GCSEE/ERMA), a member of the Global Campus of Human Rights (GC), joined the commemoration of the 25th anniversary since Srebrenica Genocide, in cooperation with the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and the Embassy of the Republic of Italy to BiH. For the occasion, our professor and GC Secretary General, Manfred Nowak shared his personal memories on Srebrenica and his engagement as the UN expert on enforced disappearances and the judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1990-es, sharing a strong message on the importance of recognizing Srebrenica genocide and banning denial still present so many years after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the time of the genocide by Bosnian Serb forces against some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, I had a mandate as independent expert of the UN Commission on Human Rights to lead a “Special Process on Missing Persons in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia”. We had drawn up a list of almost 3,000 missing persons in Croatia and more than 27,000 missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and identified some 300 mass graves where we expected that most of the missing persons could be found, exhumed and identified if we were to receive the necessary political and financial support from the international community. I was one of the first international officials who was allowed by the Bosnian Serb leadership in Pale to visit Srebrenica after the genocide. We found a considerable number of unburied mortal remains scattered over a mountainous and remote forest near the village of Kravice. With the assistance of a Finnish team of 22 forensic experts and financial support from the Dutch Government, we collected these mortal remains and brought them to the morgue in Tuzla for post mortem examination. These were the mortal remains of Muslim men who were trying to escape the hell of Srebrenica on this so-called “death march” and who were deliberately killed by Bosnian Serb forces and left unburied. I also interviewed a small number of highly traumatized men, who had survived this “death march” and arrived in Tuzla after days of walking under constant attacks by Bosnian Serb soldiers. Their stories belong to the worst I have ever heard when investigating human rights violations.

We also started opening mass graves near other villages surrounding Srebrenica. However, even after the Dayton Peace Agreement entered into force on 14 December 1995, my team of forensic experts was repeatedly attacked by Bosnian Serbs, and during the night we could not protect the mass graves against tampering. I appealed to the first High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, and to the US Commander of IFOR, a robust international peacekeeping force with 60,000 heavily armed soldiers under NATO command, to provide me with a few soldiers for the protection of my team and open mass graves. Although they did provide some protection to the forensic teams of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), I was told that the same protection for the “mere” purpose of exhuming the mortal remains of missing persons was not possible. Carl Bildt even advised me to stop “digging into the past” since this would obstruct the peace process, and that Bosnia and Herzegovina was looking into a bright future. He simply did not want to understand that establishing the truth of past crimes, identifying the missing and providing justice and reconciliation were essential preconditions for a lasting peace.

In addition to exhumations, I negotiated with the national commissions on missing persons of the Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs to provide me with relevant information about the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, to exchange prisoners of war which they still had under their control, and to exchange mortal remains. Negotiating with Berislav Pusic, the head of the Bosnian Croat Commission on Missing Persons, about how many Croat bodies I had to provide to him in exchange for the body of one Muslim was another one of the worst experiences I ever had when investigating human rights violations. The extent of brutality and barbarism, which the ethnic cleansing operations had caused among the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is unimaginable. When I decided that I did not wish to continue these highly cynical negotiations between the three Bosnian parties, I proposed the establishment of a multilateral commission on missing persons consisting of high-level representatives of the governments of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as of the international community. While the UN Commission on Human Rights declined my proposal in April 1996, US President Bill Clinton took it up in July 1996 at the G7 Conference in Lyon. He established under US lead and with US funds the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), which was also entrusted with a broad mandate of carrying out and facilitating exhumations supported by DNA analysis. Thanks to the activities of the ICMP, which is still existing today and continues to open mass graves 25 years after Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina is the country with the highest rate of identifications of missing and disappeared persons in the world. From the 8,000 missing from Srebrenica, more than 7,000 have been identified and buried in the Srebrenica-Potocari Cemetery and Memorial site.

At the beginning of 1996, I was elected by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe as one of eight international judges of the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Chamber was at that time the highest court in the country, established under Annex 6 of the Dayton Peace Agreement, with a broad mandate to decide about individual cases of alleged violations of human rights protected by a considerable number of international or European human rights treaties. Although we could only decide about human rights violations committed by the State of BiH or one of its two Entities after the entry into force of the Dayton Peace Agreement on 14 December 1995, we were soon confronted with many disappearance cases dating back to the time of the armed conflict. The applicants claimed that the respective authorities had not done enough after 1995 to clarify the fate and whereabouts of thousands of persons who disappeared during ethnic cleansing operations. The most important of these cases was a collective complaint submitted by a number of women from Srebrenica. Although the facts of the genocide in Srebrenica had been established already in detail by the ICTY in the Krstic and other criminal cases, the official representative of the Republika Srpska (RS), during an oral hearing before the Chamber in the year 2000 (!), still maintained that perhaps one hundred soldiers of the Bosnian Army had been killed in Srebrenica, which was definitely less than the 300 soldiers of the Bosnian Serb forces who were killed at that time in and around Srebrenica. We were all dismayed by such a denial of the first genocide in Europe after the Holocaust and ordered in our judgment that the RS had to carry out an official investigation of the events in Srebrenica under the supervision of the High Representative. This led to the first official acknowledgment of the massacre (not yet: the genocide) of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by the then President of the RS and other high-level officials in the RS and in Serbia. Instead of individual compensations, we ordered the RS, as a collective reparation, to pay more than 2 million euros to the Foundation of the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery, which substantially contributed to the construction of this important memorial site where most of the victims of the genocide have in the meantime been buried in individual graves.

8,000 men and boys were deliberately killed in and around Srebrenica in July 1995 by members of the Bosnian Serb forces under the political and military command of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic only because they belonged to the Bosniac (Muslim) part of the population of BiH. The facts of this first genocide in Europe after the Nazi Holocaust have been meticulously established beyond any reasonable doubt by the ICTY, the International Court of Justice, the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the War Crimes Chamber of the State Court of BiH and many other courts and investigating bodies. As long as the genocide in Srebrenica as the worst single crime during more than three years of systematic ethnic cleansing operations against the civilian population in this tiny multi-religious country will not be officially acknowledged by all political parties and representatives and truly believed by the people of BiH, there will be no lasting and sustainable peace.

It is a shame that the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica has again been used by some politicians as an occasion to deny this genocide. As the Holocaust denial constitutes a crime in an increasing number of countries, the denial of the genocide in Srebrenica should also be established as a criminal offense in all successor countries of the former Yugoslavia and beyond.

Manfred Nowak is Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Vienna University and Director of the Vienna Master of Arts in Human Rights and the Secretary General of the Global Campus of Human Rights.

He served in various expert functions, such as UN expert on enforced disappearances (1993-2006), UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (2004-2010), judge at the Human Rights Chamber for Bosnia and Herzegovina (1996-2003) and Vice Chairperson of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (2013-2018). In 2016 he was appointed Independent Expert leading the UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty.

Prof. Manfred Nowak a lecturer at the European Regional MA Programme in Democracy and Human Rights in SEE (GCSEE/ERMA), implemented by CIS UNSA in partnership with the University of Bologna. He is author of more than 600 publications in the fields of public and international law and human rights.