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Srebrenica – remembering the missing

05-07-2005 Feature by Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo

Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's delegate-general for Europe and the Americas, was the organization's head of delegation in Sarajevo in 1995. In this article she stresses the legal right of families to know the fate of their missing relatives and calls for renewed commitment by the international community.

This July marks the tenth anniversary of the fall of the town of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces and the subsequent murder of up to 8,000 Bosnian Moslems - the most serious war crime in Europe since World War II. Ten years after the horrible events of Srebrenica and nearly ten years after the Dayton agreement ended the war many of the scars caused by the bloodshed have not yet healed. This is particularly true for the families of more than 14,500 persons reported missing to the ICRC throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina – including 5,500 missing persons from Srebrenica – still waiting for evidence of what exactly happened to their relatives.
The fact that the missing are almost certainly dead takes nothing away from the suffering their families are experiencing every day. Not knowing what happened to a husband, father or brother (almost all the missing persons are men), not being able to give them a dignified burial, to mourn their passing at a gravesite, continues to place an intolerable burden on these families. They need to be given the possibility to gain closure on the tragedies of the past and to be able to move on with their lives. Moreover, for a country like Bosnia-Herzegovina, trying to overcome the divisions of the past, progress on the resolution of the fate of missing persons will help to improve and stabilize relations between different communities.

The anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre obliges the international community, including humanitarian organizations, to re-examine critically its role at the time. For the ICRC this is especially painful since nine of our colleagues went missing in the course of the events in Srebrenica. While the human r emains of three of them have been identified, six remain unaccounted for.

Like so many others, the ICRC was unable to prevent the crimes that happened in Srebrenica and its surroundings. We must acknowledge that despite our efforts to help thousands of civilians forcibly expelled from the town and despite the dedication of our colleagues on the spot, the ICRC's impact on the unfolding of the tragedy was extremely limited. This was partly due to our inability to understand immediately the enormity of the horror of what happened in Srebrenica. At the time, it was hard to believe that a crime of this magnitude could be committed right under the eyes of the international community. After endless days and nights of trying to gain access to Srebrenica and the surrounding area, the ICRC only managed to visit about 200 detainees arrested in the town.

The right of families to know the fate of their missing loved ones must be respected and upheld...
However, the events in Srebrenica also serve as a brutal reminder that humanitarian action on its own cannot stop serious war crimes from being committed. This can only happen if all conflict parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. The community of states must put pressure on them to do this, and be ready to use force if they don't.

While there is a humanitarian imperative to help the families of the missing, there is also a legal obligation to do so. International humanitarian law stipulates that the right of families to know the fate of their missing loved ones must be respected and upheld. The prime responsibility in this respect lies with the authorities concerned in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They must do everything in their power to provide inform ation on all missing persons to their families.

The international community must remain committed to this process, for example by continuing to back efforts to locate and identify the human remains of victims of the conflict. Conducting post-mortem examinations and DNA analysis on bodies that have been underground for many years and collecting ante-mortem data that helps in the identification process, albeit painstaking and painful, remains as necessary as ever in order to help the families of the missing cope with their loss.

While humanity can learn from its mistakes, we cannot undo what happened in Srebrenica ten years ago. However, we can help to reduce the pain of those still waiting to hear what exactly happened to their relatives killed in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina. July's commemorative events should, first and foremost, be dedicated to them.

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