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Opinion: 25 years ago today, the UN let Srebrenica happen. Now, it is allowing history repeat itself in Syria

The UN can’t defend people in Syria or even deliver aid, writes Barry Andrews. The least we can do is prepare for the prosecution of the terrible crimes that happen there.

Barry Andrews MEP for Dublin

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS ON from Srebrenica, the UN’s failures in Syria demonstrate that it is unable to defend vulnerable populations and even unable to deliver aid. For millions of Syrians, all that can be hoped for is justice and accountability when the war finally comes to an end.

On 11 July 1995, following months of shelling, the Yugoslav Army and Bosnian Serb militia under the command of Ratko Mladic advanced on Srebrenica.

The vastly outnumbered Dutch UN peacekeepers, charged with protecting the UN safe haven, stood back and allowed Serb forces to take control of Srebrenica and its population.

Over the next eleven days 8,372 Bosnian men and boys were to be executed and buried in mass graves in Srebrenica.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged: “Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

Accountability 

Ratko Mladic has spent the last 10 years in jail for the crimes he began committing at Srebrenica 25 years ago today.

Another 90 people have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with sentences enforced in 14 different countries. They were convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war or breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

For many it underlined that there would be no escape in future for those that are responsible for these kinds of atrocities; there would be nowhere to hide and no impunity.

In 2005, the UN took a further step to build on these lessons. The UN adopted a policy known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The idea was that if a State was judged to have completely abandoned the duty to protect its own citizens, the UN would intervene. State sovereignty would no longer be an excuse.

The policy was applied in good faith to protect civilian populations in Libya in 2011 before mutating into a policy of regime change with disastrous consequences for the people of Libya and the R2P principle.

So where does that leave us as regards the many crimes that have been committed over the last 10 years in Syria? Is there any hope that those that have been identified as having been involved in the forced disappearance of 100,000 Syrians or in the deliberate bombing of hospitals and schools will be held to account?

I have been raising this issue repeatedly in the European Parliament with Commissioner Lenarcic and with High Representative Borrell.

Sometimes it can seem hopeless to think in terms of accountability. However, all is not lost. The gathering of evidence is going on apace across the UN and in NGOs.

Preparations for what may lie ahead

In 2016 the UN established the International Independent and Impartial Mechanism for Syria (IIIM). The purpose of this mechanism is to gather evidence that will ground later prosecutions and to prepare files for fair trials in national and international courts.

There is also the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, set up by the UN’s Human Rights Council. It issued its latest report on Tuesday covering the 6 months up to June. It listed 17 attacks on medical facilities, 14 attacks on schools and 9 attacks on markets; all war crimes. The report also said that these “may be crimes against humanity”.

An NGO called the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA) which is funded by the EU, is also preparing criminal case files arising from the atrocities committed during the Syrian war.

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Finally, there is the concept of Universal Jurisdiction. This allows a foreign country to prosecute crimes against humanity. In April, the trial of two Syrians who had sought asylum in Germany began in Koblenz. The trial has been hearing dramatic evidence of the torture of 4,000 prisoners and 52 murders and is expected to continue into next year.

Looking back at Srebrenica, many people say that they wished they had known then what they know now. They say they wished they had done more.

It took the genocide in Srebrenica to convince political leaders that something had to be done to halt the slaughter. Reacting to public outrage at US inaction after Srebrenica, President Clinton is reported to have said, “This can’t continue…. We have to seize control of this….. I’m getting creamed”.

Doing nothing became electorally more difficult than doing something.

bosnia-and-herzegovina-common-grave-near-zvornik A soldier takes a photo of a common grave near Srebrenica Source: DPA/PA Images

Six months after the massacre the Dayton Peace accords were signed and the war was brought to a very imperfect end.

The degree to which Syria has fallen off the radar is underlined by the fact that last night, the UN Security Council failed to renew a resolution that allowed food and medicine to cross the Turkish-Syria border, cutting off humanitarian aid to 2 million people. Incredibly, the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China.

The 25th anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica will fall on the same day that the UN stops humanitarian aid deliveries to Idlib.

The international community cannot protect the people there; it cannot deliver aid there; the least we can do is redouble efforts to prepare for the prosecution of the terrible crimes that continue to this day.

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About the author:

Barry Andrews  / MEP for Dublin

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