“Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson.
“These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.” Srebrenica, on European soil, 25 years ago this week, described later to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia by Judge Fouad Riad.
Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general convicted of ordering the execution of 8,000 people in the Bosnian UN-declared “safe area” is now thankfully in jail in The Hague. He has served nine years of his life sentence, now under appeal. Fourteen others were convicted. And the sister tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) convicted and sentenced 93 people found responsible for the 1994 genocide there.
In the interim, the world found, but is arguably in danger of losing, an appetite for the prosecution of war criminals. The tribunals laid the basis for the permanent International Criminal Court (ICC), currently threatened by sanctions by Donald Trump for daring to investigate US troops in Afghanistan and Israeli actions in Palestine. Although the US is not party to the ICC treaty, the court’s jurisdiction extends to acts committed in countries like Afghanistan which are signatories.
The US has ensured that American military personnel would not be charged with international crimes both by threatening preventive action and entering into over 100 agreements with other countries to ensure immunity for American soldiers and officials from ICC jurisdiction, coupled with a threat to withhold aid if a government refuses to agree to such a law-defying arrangement.
‘Responsibility to protect’
Importantly, the UN did begin to get to grips with the challenge of stopping crimes like genocide while they were happening. The failure of UN peacekeeping troops to protect civilians in Srebrenica and Rwanda laid the basis for unanimous agreement of UN member states in 2005 to the principle of “responsibility to protect”(R2P), the obligation on member states to intervene, if necessary with force, “should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. An acknowledgment that in a world governed by the rule of law, national sovereignty must be limited.
The principle that fundamental human rights are universal and not state-specific or culturally relative was enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it’s one thing agreeing the principle that human rights are universal, quite another ensuring they can be vindicated in practice let alone be prevented. The UN Human Rights Council, now reporting systematically on abuses in all the member states, has no power beyond its ability to shine a light on abuse.
And R2P has proved problematic – some states regard its invocation as a dangerous licence to former imperial powers and a threat to national sovereignty.
Russia has made clear that western overreach in Libya in using R2P as a mandate for overthrowing Gadafy means it will veto future resolutions at the UN Security Council. Russia and China have jointly vetoed eight draft security council resolutions on Syria and Russia has independently vetoed a further six.
The difficulty in getting cases before the ICC has led a number of courts in Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia to initiate domestic legal proceedings against suspected Syrian perpetrators under the principle of universal jurisdiction. The first trial of members of President Bashar Assad’s security services for alleged crimes against humanity opened in Germany on April 23rd.
A quarter century on from Srebrenica, the world has become painfully used to atrocities and not much better at preventing them. That will almost certainly require the hugely difficult reform of the UN Security Council permanent members’ veto and a new political will within the general assembly to offer troops for the more dangerous peace-enforcing missions.
With the recent election of Ireland, India, Kenya, Mexico and Norway to the council for 2021 , there will be 15 members who are part of the like-minded “Friends of the Responsibility to Protect” group. A key challenge for them will be the strengthening and reform of the ICC where an appointment of a new prosecutor is due – with an Irish candidate in the running.
Honouring the “never again” promises that followed Srebrenica’s bloody events requires above all a re-energising of an international debate about giving the UN real teeth in protecting fundamental values.