By Henry Maitles

SREBRENICA has come to symbolise genocide for the post-war European generation. It was a warning – along with the Cambodian killing fields and the genocide in Rwanda – that despite the hopes of "never again" after the Nazi genocide these events could still occur.

Over the period of a few days in July 1995, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered – most of them shot at close range – by Bosnian Serb militias, the leaders of which ended up in war crime trials in the Hague. Alongside these killings, there was the forced and abusive ethnic cleansing of some 40,000 Bosnian Muslim women, children and elderly. But the circumstances of the murders are particularly disturbing and raise complex issues.

I was at a genocide scholars conference in Sarajevo in 1998 and attended the funerals in Srebrenica of some 600 Bosnian children that had been found in the nearby forests. The events will stay with me forever: the impossibly small coffins; the 300,000 grieving and furious Bosnians mourners; the organised chaos of this crowd, unpoliced as some police had been allegedly implicated in the crime; and, the anger towards the Serbs, the West and the UN in particular.

Srebrenica was supposedly at the time (July 1995) a UN "safe haven", where civilians would be under the protection of the Dutch Battalion of the UN. Due to its UN category, fleeing Muslims had gravitated there. Not only did the UN force not protect them, but they handed over men and boys who were in the factory area under their direct control to brutal racist armed militias, who already had a reputation for human rights abuses. The excuse from the Dutch Battalion was that they were only allowed to use force if attacked. As a human rights lawyer said at our conference, why could they not have said to the militias "you want them, you come through us"? But they didn’t and they handed them to the killers. Interestingly, as recently as 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Dutch state was liable.

I would never suggest that these things are easy in times of war and internecine fighting. We see this all too often in situations – in Ukraine right now and in the alleged reactions of well-trained British elite units in Afghanistan, recently highlighted by BBC investigations. But, when the UN declares an area safe and people flock to it, if they are not protected then the UN was unwittingly collecting them together nicely in one place for the Bosnian Serb killers.

The lessons are there for us, as they were at the end of the Second World War and in various other genocide and war crime events since then, of the inhumanity that can come when racist and Nazi ideas take hold. Perhaps we need to take a step back and argue that "never again" can only be realised if we stop racist movements on their way up. It is much harder when they are fully formed.

Henry Maitles is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of West of Scotland