FIFTEEN YEARS LATER: Forward or Backward in the Balkans?

July 15, 2010
12:00 pm - 02:00 pm

Srebrenica stands as a stark reminder that there are evil people prepared to kill without conscience or mercy if the world stands aside. 

We must again ask ourselves how such an act… how this genocide… could have taken place in our time.

We must again acknowledge that the world failed to act… failed to prevent the slaughter of innocents of Srebrenica.  A slaughter which President Obama has called “a stain on our collective conscience.”

With these words, Anthony Blinken, Deputy Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor to the Vice President, recalled the murder of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in broad daylight in Europe fifteen years ago. To remember and reflect on the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, the Endowment partnered for the first time with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum  on a conference, Fifteen Years Later: Forward or Backward in the Balkans?

The conference featured two lively panels, one examining what has happened over the past 15 years in terms of transitional justice, and the other discussing the challenges ahead for Bosnia’s democratic transition.

Sara Bloomfield, Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, welcomed attendees, and NED President Carl Gershman reminded them that though the US is now largely preoccupied with other troubled regions, the Balkans needs international attention. In Bosnia, reforms are blocked, ethnic tensions growing, and nationalists are becoming more aggressive as the October elections approach. Gershman recognized the work of NED grantees in the Balkans, and emphasized the importance of communicating to people ‘on the front lines’ of this struggle for democracy that ‘the world is watching and that they are not alone.’ 

Fact-Finding, Truth-Telling, and Memorialization

Photo Credit: U.S. Holocaust Museum

The first of two panels, “Fact-Finding, Truth-Telling, and Memorialization,” featured Srebrenica survivor Emir Suljigić, NED grantees Nataša Kandić (Humanitarian Law Center, Belgrade) and Anisa Sućeska-Vekić (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Sarajevo), and US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp.

Kandić, a past recipient of the NED Democracy Award and a current NED grantee, brought to the panel her extensive experience documenting and disclosing facts about the region’s wars. Having produced an influential and widely-viewed documentary film using video footage of the paramilitary “Scorpions” unit killing six Bosniaks during the Srebrenica massacre, she was able to share her first-hand experience in the challenge of confronting dark national legacies.

These legacies include the Serbian government’s continued denial of the genocide at Srebrenica, despite the plethora of DNA evidence and trial testimony. The panel noted that official denial is supplemented by hateful speech in the media, unexcavated mass graves, wanted war criminals (such as Ratko Mladić) still at large, and the lack of political will to help families of genocide victims.

Though Ambassador Rapp was generally positive about The Hague’s prosecution of war criminals, Suljigić (one of the few Bosnian men to come out of Srebrenica alive) expressed his frustration that the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the international community have not done enough. When asked if there had been any surprises in the last 15 years, Suljigić named the failure of the UN’s institutional memory – ‘never again’ had indeed happened again, in places such as Darfur and Congo – while the Ambassador highlighted the recovery of Mladić’s diaries and Milosevic’s trial as positive steps forward in the process of transitional justice.

International Engagement and the Future for the Region

The second panel, “International Engagement and the Future for the Region,” was moderated by NED Program Officer Ivana Howard, and featured Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council, the US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Douglas Davidson, Ambassador Renée Jones-Bos of the Netherlands, and former British MP Bruce George, Leader of the United Kingdom Delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

Davidson outlined some of the key problems in Bosnia today and noted the failure of the last international attempt to help reform the country’s constitution. George brought a note of controversy to the panel when he questioned the efficacy of the international mission in Bosnia, strongly asserting that Bosnian citizens must take a larger role in improving governance and rooting out corruption. Bassuener, however, demanded that EUROFOR’s mandate be renewed, extended and even enlarged, highlighting the need to ‘tamp down’ the rising existential security fears that have been ‘reanimated’ as the international presence has been drawn down.

Addressing the wider regional situation, Ambassador Jones-Bos noted that though Serbia had not rated an ‘A’ in the June report issued by Chief Hague Prosecutor Serge Brammertz, there had nonetheless been sufficient improvement to allow the Dutch government to drop its two-year-old opposition to Serbia’s EU Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Asked by Howard to make a wish for Bosnia, the Ambassador hoped to see Ratko Mladic tried in The Hague, while Bassuener wished for a US special envoy for the Western Balkans; George joined in and expressed a wish for a ‘Bosnian Mandela’ who could reach across ethnic and religious lines and build unity in this fractured place.

Keynote Address

Photo Credit: U.S. Holocaust Museum

The afternoon concluded with a keynote address from Anthony Blinken, the National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. He noted that the concept of the state’s ‘responsibility to protect’ – which is key to being proactive and limiting the likelihood that disputes will explode into mass violence – has been integrated into official US policy, and that the concept has been gaining currency worldwide.

But Blinken also pointed out that Srebrenica reminded the world that genocide prevention is not just a governmental mission. The high school and college anti-genocide clubs that mobilized divestment campaigns, for example, demonstrated that citizen action is a crucial factor in motivating governments to act.

Going forward, Blinken praised the ‘extraordinary’ change taking place in Bosnia, the construction and crowded cafes, Serbia’s membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace, and the progress on its and region’s eventual EU accession. However he also acknowledged the depressingly sharp rise in nationalist rhetoric and the challenges of corruption. “In the end,” he observed, “we cannot decide Bosnia’s future. Only its people and leaders can. The choice is theirs. On this anniversary of Srebrenica, our most fervent wish is that they make the right choice.”

To read Carl Gershman’s remarks, go to:

To read Anthony Blinkens, remarks, go to:

This event was cosponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Endowment for Democracy. It was made possible in part by the Helena Rubinstein Fund.