Why Russia is unwilling to call Srebrenica massacre genocide

Serbia has condemned the killings in Srebrenica, but refuses to recognize it as genocide. So does Russia.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
A woman cries near coffins of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on July 10, 2015.

Twenty years after the Srebrenica massacre, remains of some of those who were killed are still unburied, and the issue of what to call the systematic killing of Bosniak Muslims unresolved.

It was the worst mass killing on European soil since the Second World War. In 1995, approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the town of Srebrenica were massacred by Serbian forces inside a United Nations protected “safe haven.”

One hundred and thirty-six newly identified Srebrenica victims are going to be buried in Bosnia, following Russia's veto this week of the United Nations Security Council move to call the massacre “genocide.”

The British-drafted resolution urged that "Acceptance of the tragic events at Srebrenica as genocide is a prerequisite for reconciliation.”

But Russia says the genocide term is "confrontational and politically-motivated.” Russia had instead proposed condemning “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.”

The term genocide was adopted by the UN in 1948.  It refers to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Even though the definition sounds clear, to formally recognize a massacre as genocide is not an easy task. From the Armenian Genocide in 1915 to Rwanda and Darfur, the debate over the use of the term genocide has always been politically charged.

Bosnia is a similar example. Natalie Nougayrede notes in The Guardian that Russia’s refusal to recognize Srebrenica killings as genocide should not be disregarded “as just another snub” to the West.

[Former Serbian leader] Slobodan Milosevic,  just as Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine and before that in the Caucasus, blew the flames of militaristic patriotism to consolidate his hold on power. Even if no international tribunal has ever been created to rule on whether genocide was committed in Chechnya (approximately 50,000 dead between 1999 and 2003), this key military campaign in Putin’s political career explains why Srebrenica is a symbol that Russian diplomacy must counter.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice recognize the Srebrenica massacre as genocide. The Hague tribunal has charged numerous Bosnian Serb war criminals with genocide, but the Security Council resolution would have been the first formal definition of “genocide.”

And in Serbia, there have been some attempts as well. In March 2010, Serbia's parliament adopted a resolution condemning the massacre in Srebrenica, but it came short of calling the crime genocide.

As the debate over what to call the massacre continues among politicians, Bosnians and some in Serbia go their own ways to remember Srebrenica.

On Saturday, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, Bosnia is holding a ceremony to bury the remains of 136 victims, and in Serbia, some are also planning to pay tribute. Serbian journalist Dusan Masic has called for a mass demonstration on Saturday in front of Belgrade’s parliament to commemorate what he calls a “genocide in Srebrenica.”

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