By Cliff Bond, Senior Advisor
In February of this year, the International Court of Justice issued a decision confirming that an act of genocide had been committed in the UN designated safe haven of Srebrenica in July 1995. The court decision came at a time when political tensions were already high in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A hotly contested election and a failed attempt at constitutional reform a few months earlier had led senior politicians to revert to war-time rhetoric not heard since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in late 1995. Many in the international community failed to appreciate how the decision would further sharpen inter-ethnic tensions and unleash a pent-up sense of humiliation and injustice among Bosnian Muslims for the failure to either prevent this atrocity or hold its principle perpetrators, indicted but still at-large Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, accountable.
In response to this deteriorating political situation and in view of my experience as a former U.S. Ambassador to Sarajevo, then-High Representative Christian Schwartz-Schilling, the senior international representative responsible for implementing Dayton, asked me in May to serve as his Envoy to Srebrenica. My one year mandate was to address concerns of Srebrenica’s residents and future returnees for justice, security and a better life. The Helsinki Commission kindly made me available to serve on a part-time basis for this purpose. Mid-way through this mandate I am pleased to report progress is being made by local authorities and the international community working constructively together to improve conditions in the Srebrenica region, albeit much more needs to be done.
At the beginning of our work in Srebrenica we faced the need to reduce political tensions on the ground. Without calming the situation and creating space for dialogue, progress and cooperation would not have been possible. Many factors contributed to a now-improved environment, but a decision to remove an Orthodox church constructed illegally on privately-owned Bosnian Muslim land in the village of Konjevic Polje, not far from Srebrenica, was certainly important. This had been a long standing dispute and action on it underscored that in every part of Bosnia and Herzegovina the rights of citizens, regardless of ethnicity, must be respected. Unfortunately, the decision is yet to be fully implemented. The sooner it is, the more confidence it will generate and the more trust will be built among the citizens of Srebrenica.
But this is a small step when compared with the continued liberty of many of those who planned and carried out the genocide at Srebrenica, which remains a source of frustration for the survivors. The actions of incoming High Representative Miroslav Lajcak in early July to accelerate investigations of the suspects of the Srebrenica atrocities was significant, as was the full cooperation in implementing these measures by the authorities of the Republika Srpska – the Bosnian Serb entity, which along with the Muslim-Croat Federation, make up the decentralized state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A decision to fund a team of international investigators and then to open a branch of the State Prosecutor’s Office in Srebrenica were also meant to reinforce this effort and speed up prosecutions. Taken together, these actions assured the public that the individuals who played a part in the crimes at Srebrenica will eventually be brought to justice.
Another significant step had been taken earlier by Lajcak’s predecessor, Christian Schwartz-Schilling. He acted to establish the legal authority for the Srebrenica-Potocari Foundation (a memorial and cemetery for the victims) at the state level and provided for its security through a state-level law enforcement agency. This addressed a fundamental concern of surviving family members for the Foundation’s future once the Office of the High Representative and the exceptional international presence ended in the country. This should be viewed as a human and moral gesture taken out of recognition of the tragedy that occurred, not as a political one, as some have chosen to portray it. The decision deserves the full support of all the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although the current situation in terms of public order around the Srebrenica region is good, returnees are understandably sensitive to the issue of security. We are working with entity authorities to establish and maintain more ethnically balanced policing in the municipality. Along with the speedier prosecution of war criminals, nothing would make returnees to the region feel more secure and protected.
When I came back to Srebrenica in May this year, I found it little changed since my first visit in 2001. In the past six months the authorities of the Republika Srpska have invested more than $25 million in infrastructure and other public service improvements in the region and deserve credit for the effective way in which this has been carried out. Additional funding will be dedicated for this purpose in the entity’s 2008 budget and municipal authorities will be involved in planning and identifying priorities for this spending.
The state-level Council of Ministers has also approved an approximately $7 million spending package for infrastructure development, business promotion and the improvement of public services. This is a good package of measures, and includes physical improvements to the town’s center, but it needs to be implemented as quickly as possible.
The Federation has also devoted some $2.5 million to support sustainable returns and directed some of its public enterprises to invest in the region.
A Development Conference was organized in Srebrenica by the U.N. Development Program, international donors and the municipality on July 3. Its object was less about raising more money, though it did, and more about better coordination among donors to produce a more visible impact of the considerable assistance already dedicated to the region. Donors need to better align their activities with the municipality’s own priorities and be more transparent and inform the public of their programs and results.
Nothing will change economic conditions for the better in Srebrenica more than the generation of new jobs. Small but still important first steps have been taken to expand Bosnian Muslim employment opportunities in public services and enterprises in the area, and this is a positive step. More certainly needs to be done on this score. The real potential for job creation, however, is in the private sector and through attracting new investment to the region. This is why we organized a major investment conference on November 6. The conference demonstrated that investor opportunities and interest exist in Srebrenica, and an American and Slovene firm announced plans to invest in the municipality at the end of the conference. There have been additional expressions of investor interest since, but now local authorities must work, with the support of the international community, to translate this potential into actual investment and more jobs.
Despite an agreement signed by the Federation and the Republika Srpska earlier this year on improving access to health services, returnees to Srebrenica complain that they are still unable to get the treatment and benefits to which they are entitled. This is also true of other social services, which like health care are the competency of each entity. The problems arise as refugees return from one entity to another. Entity authorities must cooperate in finding a solution to this as a matter of urgency, not only for Srebrenica, but for other returnee communities throughout the country.
Unless you have spent time in Srebrenica, you cannot appreciate how isolated the community is. Currently most villages in the area have no access to radio or television signals, and this only strengthens a sense of isolation and abandonment. Thankfully, the Dutch and U.S. governments are working to establish radio and television coverage throughout the area. A U.S. firm, Cisco Systems, will also soon provide wireless broadband Internet access to the community, allowing Srebrenica’s schools and youth to connect with the outside world.
All of these positive initiatives will only succeed if a constructive dialogue is maintained among the members of the Srebrenica community. Dialogue requires courage and confidence and will be essential in the months ahead if we are to reach agreement on such issues as developing Srebrenica’s natural resources, including its mineral springs which were a major pre-war tourist attraction, bringing other business to the region and providing a better ethnic balance to its police and other public services, including in the senior ranks.
In my work over the last six months, I have found the people of Srebrenica, after all that they have been through and in the midst of continuing real hardship, are capable of working together to build a better future. In this they can serve as an example to the political leaders of their country who must work together to achieve the constitutional and other reforms that can secure Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community.