The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacres during the Bosnia conflict is prompting renewed interest in what happened and why. To mark the occasion the UK government has tabled a draft UN Security Council resolution on the issue. The current UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edward Ferguson, explains the idea behind this initiative here:

Srebrenica represents the most terrible single event in mainland Europe since the end of the Second World War.  Over 8,000, mostly men and boys, were systematically killed and buried in mass graves.  Thousands of families lost their loved ones.  Many are still searching for their bodies. First and foremost, this was a human tragedy on a massive scale and it is right that we should commemorate the victims, those who died and those who are left behind.

Of course, we recognise and we respect deeply the fact that the people of Srebrenica were not the only ones who suffered in the war.  Many other families throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina – Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and others – lost fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. The pain they feel is something no-one else can understand.  But the sheer number of those who died in the organised killings at Srebrenica is something without equal and must be the subject of special reflection and commemoration.

The second reason is that this was a hugely significant event for the United Nations itself.  In his report after the event, Kofi Annan, then the Secretary General, recognised that the United Nations had made mistakes and that they had not done enough to prevent the killings.  This anniversary represents an important moment for the United Nations to take stock, and to ensure that it has learned lessons for the future from the tragedies of the past.  It is right that we should do so.

Much of the commentary in recent days has focused on the word ‘genocide’.  But it is important to understand that, however difficult and divisive an issue it might be within BiH’s domestic politics, there is no serious debate about this within the international community.  Two separate international courts, involving some of the most experienced judges in the world, have on a number of occasions confirmed that this event meets the legal definition of ‘genocide’.  However one feels about it, it is an indisputable legal fact that genocide was committed in Srebrenica.  That is why all the members of the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board, when it met in Sarajevo last week, united to reaffirm that genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the course of the conflict in BiH must not be forgotten or denied.  To say so is not to attack Republika Srpska, or Serbia, or anyone else.  It is a simple statement of a sad truth.

The latter point of course is important. It means that Russia too accepts that what happened at Srebrenica was an act of genocide. Or not, as the case may be.

The Serbian leaderships in Belgrade and Banja Luka are objecting to this draft resolution, calling on Russia to veto it. Curiously enough it is not easy to find a text of the proposed resolution on the Internet. In fact I can’t find one at all, so we can’t see what they are all arguing about precisely. But the UK Ambassador to the United Nations insists that the draft resolution when formally put forward will be fair:

This resolution does not seek to bring up painful divisions nor point the finger of blame. I am sure that every Security Council member who reads the text will see that it is balanced. It is a chance for the Council to reaffirm the whole international community’s commitment to prevent genocide, and war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as to examine the tools at our disposal to do so.

To add to the excitement Serbia’s President Nikolic has (it seems) done something bizarre. He reportedly has written a letter to HM the Queen asking her to intervene to get HM Government to withdraw the resolution. Here’s a link to the article in Blic in Serbia showing what looks like a copy of the original text.

The letter starts with a sort of acknowledgement that to write in this way is ‘undiplomatic behaviour’ then laboriously rehearses Serbia’s long and painful history of resistance and suffering, before he finally gets round to actually mentioning Srebrenica. It complains that the world is being invited to treat Srebrenica as a unique example of genocide while ignoring a wide range of other terrible examples. It describes how the ‘Muslim forces of Bosnia and Jihadists’ attacked villages near Srebrenica killing 5000 Serbs. “500,000 Serbs were forced from their centuries-old birthplaces in Kosovo – who’s proposing a UN Security Council resolution for them?” President Nikolic (if it is he) kindly asks The Queen that her government withdraw this resolution as it opens old wounds rather than creating the basis for a better future: “if by this resolution only one, Serbian, people is condemned for a unique genocide of world proportions, the efforts of Serbia, the Serbian government and myself that we all live in peace as good neighbours will be in vain”.

What to make of this document?

The letter (if it is real) makes little sense, alas, at least as a document intended to be persuasive at the highest level. Rather it comes across as rather ramblingly self-pitying, and almost eccentric. President Nikolic must know that writing to The Queen in such a way is a trivial breach of protocol that can only make David Cameron and others in London think that the point of the letter is to show off to the Serbian people, not to make a convincing case.

Back in real life, the various national delegations at the UN who fret about such things will be haggling over words, word order, commas and all the other minutiae that UN Security Council resolutions entail. I would not expect Russia to veto a final text if the UK and other sponsoring countries have done enough to work in some Russian language that does not leave too obvious an impression that Serbs and Serbia are being singled out for blame. But, of course, making the resolution more balanced will make it much less specific. And even then Moscow may veto it just to show that it can, even at the cost of infuriating global Muslim opinion for no real gain other than poking some Western governments in the eye.

Serbia’s basic argument is the familiar and boring lament of ‘double standards’. What about all those other genocides! And look at what the ghastly Muslims did to us! That latter aspect of the Srebrenica disaster (ie the way Muslims used the Srebrenica safe haven to attack Serb villages in the neighbourhood) has to be borne in mind. It certainly disturbed the hapless and largely powerless UN soldiers there at the time.

But even if the Muslims did everything the Serbs say they did, what are we all to make of the fact that trained Serb soldiers under high military command overran the enclave then massacred in cold blood thousands of prisoners who were explicitly under UN protection, with Serbia then hiding the top people responsible for over a decade? Even Mrs Nedeljkovic, the fanatical Serbian nationalist who guarded former Serbia President Kostunica, admitted to me that “General Mladic made a grave mistake at Srebrenica“. Yes, it was that bad.

Srebrenica is worth remembering. An outlandish and revolting crime, something unique, an atrocity both on prisoners of war and against the United Nations. That’s why any sane letter from a Serbian president to a UN Security Council head of state would be wise to start by looking that fact squarely in the eye and acknowledging it as such, before making a cogent careful case for some specific points that such a resolution might helpfully include.

Diplomacy? Much smarter to work with Yes, if … rather than No, because …