UN Srebrenica resolution sets Balkan politicians at loggerheads

UN Srebrenica resolution sets Balkan politicians at loggerheads
UN General Assembly to debate resolution declaring a day of remembrance for the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia & Herzegovina this week. / OHR
By bne IntelliNews May 21, 2024

A growing number of countries in Southeast Europe are becoming embroiled in the row over a draft UN resolution declaring a day of remembrance for the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia & Herzegovina. 

Sponsored by Germany and Rwanda, the resolution is set to be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on May 23. It faces strong opposition from Serbia, Bosnia's Republika Srpska and pro-Serbian politicians in Montenegro.

In July 1995, over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serb forces and paramilitary units. The proposed UN resolution aims to designate July 11 as the International Day of Remembrance of the Srebrenica Genocide. 

This resolution condemns the glorification of individuals convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, including those involved in the Srebrenica genocide. It calls on all states to adhere to their obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and respect the rulings of the International Court of Justice. 

At the same time, the draft says that genocide responsibility is individual and not attributable to any entire ethnic, religious or other group, an amendment proposed by Montenegro.

Fierce opposition 

Serbia and Republika Srpska do not acknowledge the Srebrenica genocide, and politicians from Serbia and Bosnia’s Serb entity have lobbied intensively to prevent the adoption of the resolution. 

On April 18, the Republika Srpska parliament (NSRS) passed a resolution denying the genocide, despite the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the international community having officially recognised it as genocide. The NSRS resolution explicitly contested this, stating: “The term genocide is not correct. This qualification cannot be accepted.”

Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska's separatist president, described the Srebrenica massacre as a “grave mistake”, but not genocide, even though denying the Srebrenica genocide is illegal under Bosnian state law.

Regional destabilisation 

As the vote approaches, there are concerns about the potential for regional destabilisation. 

According to a recent report from the US Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank, the UN resolution could ignite further instability in the Balkans. The report highlights concerns about a potential move to secession by Republika Srpska, that in turn could trigger regional conflict. Dodik has long threatened secession, and has repeatedly challenged the authority of state-level institutions.

The report warns that Dodik's threats of secession should be taken seriously. According to the Hudson Institute, the upcoming vote might embolden Dodik to declare independence and seek to unite with Serbia. Such actions could have disastrous consequences, reopening ethnic and sectarian wounds from the 1990s wars.

“This is particularly true in other regions of the Balkans, such as Kosovo, with its Serbian minority, [North] Macedonia, with its ethnically Albanian regions, and even Serbia, with the Muslim-majority Sandzak region and Vojvodina region,” it said.

“The Balkans region in southeastern Europe is prone to instability. It faces many economic challenges. Ethnic, religious and sectarian differences remain a source of friction in society. And for better or worse, it is also susceptible to the influence of outside actors; Russia, the US, China and Turkiye, among others, all have interests and hold sway in the region,” the report added.

Moreover, the report highlighted the Balkans' unfinished Euro-Atlantic integration as a contributing factor to regional instability. 

Serbian lobbying 

Beyond Bosnia’s borders, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has strongly opposed the proposed UN resolution, vowing to "fight until the last moment” to prevent its adoption. 

The UNGA vote on the resolution has already been postponed following Vucic’s lobbying efforts, according to Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia’s permanent representative to the UN. 

On Instagram, Vucic shared photos from New York, detailing his meetings with UN permanent representatives from countries like Russia and the United Arab Emirates, and criticised the resolution's proponents. He also mentioned that a group had been formed at Serbia’s UN Mission to address the issue, with plans to meet over 120 permanent representatives.

He called the resolution a "political decision" that would "open a Pandora’s box”. Belgrade is understood to be concerned that the resolution’s adoption could enable Bosnia to sue Serbia for genocide. 

Divisions in Montenegro 

In Montenegro, which has a substantial Serb population, politicians are polarised by the resolution that has pitted between pro-Serbian parties on the one hand against pro-Western parties like the ruling Europe Now Movement (PES) and Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) on the other. Coalition partners of PES, including the pro-Serbian For the Future of Montenegro (ZBCG) and the Socialist People’s Party (SNP), oppose the resolution, denying that genocide occurred in Srebrenica.

A further rift opened up between Montenegro's former and current ruling parties, both pro-European, over the amendments put forward by Podgorica during a parliamentary session on May 8. Things got so headed, the session had to be adjourned.

Croatia dragged into regional row

Croatia also became embroiled in the debates after Vucic and Dodik argued that Serbs were victims of genocide at the Jasenovac concentration camp, set up by the Croats during World War II in occupied Yugoslavia. 

The majority of victims in the Jasenovac camp were Serbs and, according to data from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 45,000 and 52,000 Serbs were murdered there.

In Montenegro, the pro-Serb members of the ruling coalition asked the parliament and the government to adopt a resolution on the genocide committed at the Jasenovac camp as compensation for the government's support for the UN resolution on Srebrenica. The resolution proposes April 22 – the final day of the camp’s existence in 1945 – to be declared a day of remembrance for the camp’s victims.

43 out of 81 MPs from the ruling coalition signed the proposal on a resolution on the Jasenovac camp genocide on May 17, prompting Croatia to send a protest note.

Hungary to vote against 

Hungary, Serbia’s closest international ally, plans to vote against the resolution, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjarto said on May 15.

After hosting Dodik in Budapest, Szijjarto said adoption of the resolution would again inflame tensions in Bosnia and the region. He accused both the UN and the international community’s high representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, of taking steps to destabilise the country. 

Szijjarto added that the resolution “intentionally or unintentionally would demonise the entire Serbian nation”. 

EU Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, a Hungarian diplomat, also became embroiled in the row, voicing similar concerns to Szijjarto. 

Earlier in May, Varhelyi said that the adoption of the resolution would destabilise the region as “stigmatising the Serbian nation with collective guilt is not a viable choice” and that he “did not think that this contributes to get over the horrors of the Balkan wars”.

Bosnia’s state-level Foreign Minister Elmedin Konakovic strongly criticised Varhelyi's stance, sending an open letter on May 17, accusing him of endorsing Vucic's "shameful propaganda”. Konakovic argued Varhelyi's statements contradicted universal human values, moral norms, and international law.

Simultaneously, Bosnia’s foreign ministry halted the implementation of a joint action plan with Hungary's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on EU accession knowledge transfer, including diplomat training. 

Varhelyi has since backtracked, issuing a joint statement with Konakovic recognising the Srebrenica genocide. In the statement, which followed a phone call between the two politicians, they wrote that Varhelyi is not questioning the facts concerning the genocide in Srebrenica.