When Mike Abramowitz invited me to address you today, to mark the 15th anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica, I accepted with a sense of honor and obligation.
It is an honor to be in the presence of those who suffered so terribly yet carried on with such dignity—who found the strength and courage to return to Srebrenica to rebuild their lives.
It is an obligation, because those of us entrusted with responsibility today must do everything we can, anywhere we can, to prevent the darkest chapters of the 20th century from repeating themselves in the 21st century.
We gather to commemorate the massacre of eight thousand men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina—a slaughter that two international courts have now called by its rightful name, genocide.
We gather to remember.
We gather to question.
We gather to understand.
We gather to act.
Srebrenica stands as a stark reminder that there are evil people prepared to kill without conscience or mercy if the world stands aside.
We must again ask ourselves how such an act—how this genocide—could have taken place in our time.
We must again acknowledge that the world failed to act—failed to prevent the slaughter of innocents of Srebrenica. A slaughter which President Obama has called “a stain on our collective conscience.”
I began my own service in government in 1993, as the Balkans descended into chaos, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
I remember the feeling of outrage but also impotence. I remember asking myself how a generation brought up on the vow “never again” could only utter, helplessly, “not again.”
But I also remember leaders who stood up and demanded that we be accountable to our conscience.
One of them was the man I now work for—Joe Biden. He would not avert his eyes. He refused to let others cover their ears. Thanks to his determination, and that of so many others like Richard Holbrooke and, ultimately, President Clinton, the United States met its responsibilities.
I would like to use my time with you today to ask a question: What have we learned from the genocide in Srebrenica?
What have we learned from the systematic murder of eight thousand Muslim men and boys in broad daylight in Europe, with CNN cameras rolling nearby?
What have we learned about accountability, prevention, and political mobilization?
What, in short, are the lessons of Srebrenica?
First, we have been reminded that there can be no peace without justice.
Justice has not always been swift in Bosnia, but it has been steady.
Consider the recent convictions of seven high-ranking Bosnian Serb military and police officials for crimes committed in Srebrenica and Žepa—three on charges that include genocide or aiding and abetting genocide—at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
This act of accountability brings some small measure of solace to the survivors. It also makes it clear that those who commit crimes against the basic code of humanity will be brought before the bar of justice.
Going forward, the pursuit of justice for Srebrenica must take many forms:
A full accounting of the crimes that occurred, identification and return of the remains of those who were lost, prosecution and punishment of those who ordered, abetted, and carried out the genocide.
The pursuit of justice means finding the strength to accept responsibility—not only on the part of those who committed crimes—but also on the part of those who, through indifference or silent assent, enabled evil to triumph.
And it must also include a true and full rebuilding of this once multi-ethnic municipality. By bringing vibrant life back to Srebrenica, we honor the dead. We rebuild the place they loved.
For those who survived, we stand with you in the hope that you may find a path that leads in time to reconciliation, yet never to forgetting.
The United States welcomes the March 30 Serbian National Assembly resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as a positive step toward reconciliation—addressing the crimes of the past and promoting regional relations and stability going forward.
As a part of that process, we welcome Serbia’s commitment, as noted in the resolution, to continue to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
In that regard, Serbia must spare no effort to ensure that Ratko Mladić—who has now been a fugitive for 15 years—is apprehended and brought to justice in The Hague.
The link between peace and justice is one we see all over the world.
We have seen it in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.
We see it now in Sudan and Sri Lanka.
In Sudan, the ICC just reissued an arrest warrant for President Bashir, adding charges of genocide.
The United States strongly supports international efforts to bring those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Darfur to justice. There cannot be a lasting peace in Darfur without accountability. President Obama personally underscored this point earlier this week.
In Sri Lanka, we know all too well the crimes committed by the Tamil Tigers, but also the thousands and probably tens of thousands of civilians killed in the final months of the war.
Holding accountable those responsible is necessary—and it will speed national reconciliation.
The second lesson of Srebrenica is that we cannot wait—we must summon the will and mobilize resources to prevent atrocities before they occur.
Prevention and accountability are, of course, intimately linked. The United States strongly believes that holding perpetrators like Mladić accountable is central to our efforts to prevent atrocities and genocide.
But we remain too reactive, and insufficiently proactive, when it comes to stopping the fire before it starts. We must redouble our efforts to deploy new and existing tools to limit the likelihood that disputes will explode into mass violence.
We know a good deal more today about how poverty, environmental pressures, ethnic divisions, poor governance, and state weakness raise the risk of civil strife.
Governments and non-governmental sources have developed early warning metrics to alert us when a conflict is on the brink of conflagration.
And a new notion is gaining currency: the “Responsibility to Protect.” It holds that states have responsibilities as well as interests—especially the responsibility to shield their own populations from the depraved and murderous.
This approach is bold. It is important. And the United States welcomes it and has included it as a core element of our National Security Strategy, along with our commitment to prevent genocide and hold those who organize atrocities accountable.
Endorsing the responsibility to protect is one thing; acting on it is another.
All of us in the international community will have to muster the political will to act—diplomatically, economically, or, in extreme cases, militarily—when governments prove unable or unwilling to prevent the slaughter of their citizens.
Turning both the principle of protection and the commitment to early prevention into action by the bureaucracies of our government is difficult. But it is “achievable.”
“Achievable” is how the Genocide Prevention Task Force described the possibility of preventing genocide.
The Genocide Prevention Task Force was co-convened by our hosts tonight, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
And it created a workplan, a blueprint to begin to build the type of infrastructure necessary to make real the commitment “never again.” The Obama Administration is taking its recommendations seriously.
The Task Force found that despite decades of commitments of “never again,” the United States Government had failed to develop a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism specifically designed to prevent and respond to mass atrocities and genocide.
We believe this must change and we are working to do just that. President Obama committed to building interagency structures, routines, and processes designed to engage our government early in the effort at prevention.
And the President created the first-ever White House position with responsibility for coordinating and supporting the Administration’s policies on preventing, identifying, and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.
A third and final lesson of Srebrenica is this: the task of atrocity and genocide prevention is not that of the government alone.
Policymakers and politicians respond to public pressure.
During the crises in the Balkans, advocates for intervention built pressure, fueled by real time images and reporting.
Since Srebrenica and the genocide in Rwanda, a remarkable bottom-up movement is taking root in the United States.
High School and college anti-genocide clubs have mobilized divestment campaigns, forcing state and university pension funds to divest tainted holdings.
People of all faiths and backgrounds have marched on the Mall in Washington to protest the genocide in Darfur.
Letters to the editor have been written, full-page ads placed in newspapers, public service ad produced for TV, funds raised for refugees.
Members of Congress, urged on by their constituents, have traveled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Congo, and Darfur to talk to the survivors of mass atrocity and to mobilize U.S. governmental efforts back home.
Films like Hotel Rwanda, and exhibits like the Holocaust Museum’s on Sudan have energized citizens to recognize that “never again” is a society-wide responsibility.
To the activists in the audience, let me say this. I understand your frustration at the slow pace of change—and the seeming lethargy of action.
I know sometimes you question whether you are making a difference—or why governments sometimes seems so indifferent.
Trust me: your efforts and actions have an invaluable impact. You force those of us in positions of official responsibility to confront hard truths—to avoid easy rationalizations.
We hear you see. We see you. You are having an impact. So much as I will regret saying this: keep at it. Continue to hold your government accountable.
U.S. Expectations for Bosnia
Let me conclude with a few brief thoughts on U.S. expectations for Bosnia going forward.
This year, Bosnia and Herzegovina will mark fifteen years since the genocide of the Srebrenica massacre and the subsequent signing of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Bosnia has made significant progress addressing the problems and challenges that are the legacy of the war.
I was in Sarajevo with Vice President Biden one year ago—my first visit since a trip with President Clinton in 1996.
The change was extraordinary. Cranes and construction. Traffic jams and crowded cafes. Bustling sidewalks and busy shops.
There are other signs of real progress. Today, Bosnia has a single military—it is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace—and it has taken the first major step on the road to Europe Union membership by signing a Stabilization and Association agreement with the EU.
But in recent years, the politicians have not kept up with the people.
We’ve witnessed a sharp rise in nationalist rhetoric that plays to people’s fears instead of their hopes.
Institutions and reforms are being challenged; compromise and cooperation, dismissed.
Too many political leaders have been stuck in a cycle where narrow ethnic and short-term personal interests have trumped shared, long-term objectives that would benefit all of Bosnia’s communities.
In his May 2009 speech to the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vice President Biden emphasized the need for Bosnian authorities to work together across ethnic and party lines so that Bosnia’s two entities could function as a single, sovereign state.
He laid out Bosnia’s path to Europe—and urged its leaders to focus their talent and energy on issues of undisputed interest to all Bosnians—creating jobs, growing the economy, educating children.
He committed America’s support for that future—but he also laid out an alternative course in which Bosnia’s leaders make the wrong choices and Bosnia gets left behind, remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, and, at worst, descends again into turmoil.
Now, Bosnia is deep into its election season.
Our message to Bosnian party leaders is clear: the October election is not an excuse to do nothing. You have an obligation to work in the best interests of your citizens.
We are determined, along with the EU, to continue the dialogue on reform, protect the integrity of the Dayton Agreement and Bosnian state institutions, and promote a productive atmosphere leading up to the elections in Bosnia and beyond.
But in the end, we cannot decide Bosnia’s future. Only its people and leaders can. The choice is theirs. On this anniversary of Srebrenica, our most fervent wish is that they make the right choice.
Thank you very much.