Srebrenica
A Bosnian Muslim woman walks past tombstones at the Potocari Memorial Cemetery near SrebrenicaGetty/Andrej Isakovic

Eight thousand of our fellow human beings were massacred at Srebrenica in July 1995. We must recognise and remember this.

Some may question the value of statements of solidarity or condemnation, such as the European Parliament's 2009 resolution calling on all Member States and states in the Western Balkans to observe 11 July as a day of mourning for the victims of genocide in Srebrenica. Some will say that such initiatives are well-meaning but insubstantial.

But recognising and communicating the nature and scale of the crime is an indispensable basis for taking remedial action. It would be wrong to assume that everyone understands what happened, or that everyone grasps the danger that such events still pose to Europe and the world.

The killers at Srebrenica believed that their ideology had relieved them of the structures of morality – a belief shared by murderous movements before them, and shared today by groups killing in the name of their own interpretation of ideology and religion. They all rejected the rule of law and perpetrated mass murder. Bringing individuals and movements under the rule of law is a challenging task but not an impossible one.

At the graveyard in Srebrenica more than 100 newly-identified bodies will be laid to rest on 11 July. Each of the thousands of headstones in the cemetery bears a name; each contains the identified mortal remains of a human being who lived, who loved and who was loved.

The killers sought to hide the evidence of their crime with the utmost callousness, using mechanical diggers to exhume bodies and scatter them across multiple secondary graves that they believed would be difficult to detect. In the process they commingled the bones of the dead in a way that they may have thought would make them impossible to identify. They sought to destroy the very identities of the people they had murdered.

In June 1996 at the G7 Summit in France, US President Bill Clinton proposed the establishment of ICMP (International Commission on Missing Persons) to address the issue of more than 40,000 people reported missing as a result of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. By far the highest number of missing – more than 30,000 – had been reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the 8,000 missing from Srebrenica.

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In the Western Balkans, ICMP has led a process that has made it possible to account for more than 70% of the missing, an unprecedented achievement. In the case of Srebrenica the ratio of identifications is even higher, 6,930 individuals, more than 90% of those reported missing.

Through painstaking forensic archaeology and using the most sophisticated DNA-led identification techniques it has been possible to locate and re-associate thousands of human remains, so that the relatives of the dead can bury their loved ones with dignity and respect.

The successful effort to identify the missing in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows that the insane and immoral attempt to erase the identity of perceived enemies is not a simple proposition – it can be reversed.

This is part of a broader effort to deliver justice, even after a delay of decades, as the forensic evidence amassed by ICMP has been used in the successful prosecution of war criminals.

In the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 50 individuals have been tried for crimes committed in and around Srebrenica in July 1995; at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia 21 individuals, including Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, have been tried for crimes related to Srebrenica. The Mladic and Karadzic cases continue.

We will be in Srebrenica on Saturday to offer our deepest sympathies to the bereaved, but we will also be there to assert the fundamental truth that our societies are not powerless in the face of such crimes. There are things that we can and must do in order to challenge the perverse belief that any individual or group is beyond the law and to ensure that those who refuse to be bound by the law are in the long run held accountable to it.

On 11 July we will attend the ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica. And we will be there simply as an expression of basic humanity.


Thomas Miller was US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1999 to 2001. He has been Chairman of the International Commission on Missing Persons since May 2011. Kathryne Bomberger has been Director-General of the International Commission on Missing Persons since 2004.