The Story of a General Assembly Resolution, the Weaponizing of Genocide, and the Bizarre

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This post is a story of the bizarre. Its, perhaps unlikely, subject is the adoption of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution (A/78/L.67/Rev.1), which established 11 July as the International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica.

As its name indicates, the resolution was meant to commemorate the victims of the crime of genocide committed in July 1995 in Srebrenica (Bosnia and Herzegovina, B&H), when more than 8,000 Bosniaks (mostly men and boys) were killed by the forces of the Army of Republika Srpska, led by Ratko Mladić. This genocide was established in the proceedings before the UN judicial institutions, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in 2004, 2019 and 2021, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2007. Since the resolution builds upon these judicially established facts, one would ordinarily expect that it would have been welcomed by consensus of the UN Member States in the General Assembly, as a step to commemorate the victims and secure remembrance. But that is not the world we live in.

The resolution was adopted by a majority that was slimmer than expected. It caused quite a stir both in New York, where it was negotiated and adopted, and in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia and Republika Srpska, the Serb majority entity of B&H. In particular, public opinion in Serbia and the Republika Srpska was manipulated, through concerted efforts of powerful state-controlled media, into believing that the resolution would tarnish all Serbs as a “genocidal people”. The resolution commemorating genocide became an instrument of weaponizing genocide to power nationalism. And all this was done for domestic political aims.  

I will here tell you this story as it was first told to the Serbian public. A choice selection of photos and a video will illustrate the story. I will describe its plot, its main characters and the conflict that it created. I will then show how this story was staged at the UNGA, with this mise-en-scène bringing an additional set of characters. Finally, I will discuss the epilogue of the vote and the choreography of its reception in Serbia. I will also touch upon how this story of the Srebrenica Remembrance Resolution fits into broader narratives about international law in Serbia and beyond.

The plot

The text of the resolution was modelled after similar resolutions on the genocide in Rwanda, which were adopted in the UNGA by consensus (in 2003, 2018 and in 2020). The same goes for the UNGA Resolution Establishing International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of This Crime from 2015. They all resonate with the UNGA practice of fighting impunity for mass atrocities through remembrance and education.

The resolution on the Srebrenica Remembrance Day was initiated by Germany and Rwanda, and co-sponsored by the US and 32 other (mostly Western) states. Apart from condemning the denial of the Srebrenica genocide and calling upon states to adopt different educational measures to prevent denial, distortion, and occurrence of genocide in the future, the resolution also called upon the Secretary-General to establish an outreach programme on the Srebrenica genocide.

After the draft resolution was tabled, and the public opinion in Serbia and Republika Srpska started being told that the resolution targeted the Serbs as a “genocidal people”, the draft resolution was amended. New text proposed by Montenegro was included, saying “that criminal accountability under international law for the crime of genocide is individualized and cannot be attributed to any ethnic, religious or other group or community as a whole” (emphasis added).

Ultimately, the resolution was passed, but the voting record and discussion indicated a sharp divide among the Member States: 84 were in favour, 19 voted against, and 68 abstained, while 22 states did not vote. This is the first time in the UNGA’s history that a resolution of this nature produced such a split in the membership, if I am not mistaken (for all remembrance days resolutions adopted by the UNGA, see here).

The Srebrenica resolution was from the very beginning strongly opposed by Serbia and the Serb entity in B&H. This could only be expected. (This was also the case in 2015, when there was an attempt to adopt a resolution on Srebrenica at the UN Security Council, which Russia vetoed.)

Denial of the genocide in Srebrenica, or at least ignoring it, prevails in political and general public discourse in Serbia (see this piece by Ivan Janković for more background and context). In Serbia and the Balkans (and not only there), “genocide” is a magic word (as explained by Vojin Dimitrijević). That word inspires strong emotions, not least because of extermination of the Serbs by Croatian fascists during World War II, and has been often misused in contemporary public discourse to stir hatred and victimization. Genocide is not a word to be used lightly, as all political players are aware. For example, the previous political majority in Serbia, far more liberal than the current one, made sure not to explicitly include the word “genocide” in the Declaration on Condemnation of Crime in Srebrenica adopted by the Serbian parliament in 2010. The declaration “strongly condemn[ed] the crime committed against the Bosniak population in Srebrenica in July 1995, in the manner determined by the judgment of the International Court of Justice” (emphasis added). It deliberately avoided the word “genocide” but pointed to the ICJ Judgment which confirmed that Srebrenica was genocide. The Declaration was “expressing condolences and apologies to the families of the victims because everything was not done to prevent this tragedy.”

The conflict and characters

The draft resolution entered Serbian political discourse in March (see more here). Not a word in the draft said anything about any collective guilt of the Serbian people, and it ultimately even explicitly reiterated individual criminal responsibility for genocide. But the resolution was nonetheless constantly misrepresented in the media. The now deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, a former head of the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency, who is on a US sanctions list for “corrupt dealings facilitate Russian malign activities in Serbia and the region”, labelled the draft resolution as “the finalisation of the conspiracy against Republic of Srpska and Republic of Serbia and [noted] that Germany, which conducted genocide in two wars, is the main sponsor of the resolution that supposed to declare Serbs genocidal people”.

This point was also repeated by President Vučić, Serbia’s strongman leader. It became the focus of a weeks-long campaign in which the President was heroically struggling to prevent the adoption of the resolution that would make all Serbs “genocidal.”

The campaign culminated a day before the vote in the UNGA on 22 May 2024. Serbian flags were displayed on all important roads in Serbian cities. Billboards were erected at every major intersection in Belgrade. They stated: “We are not a genocidal people. We remember…” (“Ми нисмо геноцидни народ. Памтимо …”). The message was signed “Proud Serbia and Srpska” (“Поносне Србија и Српска”).

The same message appeared on the official Instagram account of the Government of Serbia. The highest building in Belgrade, the 168-meter tall Tower Belgrade (Kula Beograd), part of the “Belgrade Waterfront” development (Beograd na vodi), played the same message in letters running on its high-tech windows. (“Belgrade Waterfront” is a highly controversial investment project and a symbol of Vučić’s rule. It is being built by an investor from the United Arab Emirates (UEA), and President Vučić himself apparently has excellent relations with the political authorities of the UAE).

Government friendly media incessantly portrayed the whole situation as potentially apocalyptic for the Serbian people, and the President as a tireless fighter, selflessly sacrificing himself for Serbia and its people (this is a common framework for depicting everything that President Vučić does).

Before leaving for New York, the President, accompanied by Milorad Dodik, his Republika Srpska counterpart, went to Serbia’s biggest church, the St. Sava Temple is Belgrade, to pray for the life of Serbia and for the Serbian Patriarch, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, to give him strength to fight. On the day of the adoption of the resolution, at noon of 23 May 2024, bells tolled in all the temples of the Serbian Orthodox Church, with the Patriarch’s blessing. He called for “a prayer, calmness, mutual solidarity and persistence in doing good, despite the completely false and unjust accusations to which they are exposed in the Organization of the United Nation”. Previously, he made references to genocide in Srebrenica in his traditional Orthodox Easter address.

At the UNGA stage

The President then travelled to New York. He promised the Serbian public that he would work tirelessly despite the odds, because he was a fighter, willing to fight to the very end. He told them that the vote will show who our friends were, and who would “stab us in the back”. He exposed big and powerful states for their “terrifying arguments” and for using “colonial methods” in pressuring smaller and weaker states to vote for the resolution. He said that “we” do not stand “a chance to win”. But, he also offered comfort, albeit a small one – claiming the vote would surprise the (Western) big and powerful states. The Chinese, among others, would oppose the resolution “as they know international law.” “We have to defend freedom, our freedom, our people, our face, our country. And that’s what we’re doing,” Vučić told us (for all in original quotes in this paragraph, see here).

24 May 2024 was the day of the vote.

In his address in the UNGA before the vote (video of the 82nd plenary meeting of the 78th session of the UNGA, at 13’45’’), President Vučić started with the claim that a terrible crime (note: not “genocide”) happened in Srebrenica and that he went there to pay respect to its victims in 2015 (video UNGA meeting, at 14’46’’). He then continued to offer different arguments why Serbia opposed the resolution, the main one being that it was “politicized”. He also criticised the timing, lack of transparency and inclusiveness in its drafting process. President Vučić’s also accused Western states, especially Germany, of double standards and hypocrisy (along the lines that the enormous number of Serbian victims in both world wars were never commemorated, especially drawing attention to those killed by the Nazis, and that no discussion was allowed on the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999). He accused Germany (Serbia’s biggest trading partner) of pressuring and threatening other states to secure support for the resolution (video UNGA meeting, 21’40’’).

President Vučić was adamant that this resolution will not contribute to peace and reconciliation in the region. On the contrary, he claimed that it will open old wounds (video UNGA meeting, at 20’50’’ and 23’35’’). In particular, he was questioning the need for this resolution when the individual legal responsibility had already been established, implying that Germany had ulterior motives in pushing for it. Finally, he said that Serbia opposed  this resolution “not to defend itself but to defend the world and principles of international law” (emphasis added) (video UNGA meeting, at 25’15’’).

At the meeting on the resolution in the UNGA, a number of states spoke to explain why they voted the way they did. Among the more notable speeches there was that of the Russian ambassador. He did not dwell too much on international law, apart from disputing the legal classification of the crime in Srebrenica as genocide by the ICTY (due to a supposed lack of genocidal intent) and ICJ. He was more interested in exposing supposed Western hypocrisy and showing how Germany did not have moral authority for pushing for this resolution (video UNGA meeting, at 1h25’20’’). Additionally, he claimed that this was a politically motivated endeavour and the abuse of the GA (video UNGA meeting, at 1h20’43’’). Russia also pointed out to the lack of consensus, and claimed that the resolution would not lead to reconciliation and peace in the Balkans but would only increase the tensions (video UNGA meeting, at 1h21’27’’).

In fact, the lack of consensus and detrimental effects of the proposed resolution on the peace and reconciliation in the Balkans were the most prominent arguments raised by those not supporting the resolution. The issue of the lack of consensus was also raised by Muslim-majority states that voted in favour of the resolution (e.g. Egypt, Iran, Sierra Leone, Saudi Arabia).

The same goes for the UAE, which, interestingly, abstained from voting. This was a most peculiar address. The Emirati representative started with a horrific story of a two-day old baby killed in the genocide in Srebrenica. He continued with a claim that the genocide in Srebrenica was a settled fact and that the UAE always stood with their “brothers and sisters who suffered unimaginable harms in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (video UNGA meeting, at 53’18’’). He said that the UAE strongly endorsed the content of the resolution and opposed any attempt to deny genocide in Srebrenica, but that the UAE would nonetheless abstain. Here I can only remind the reader of the Belgrade Waterfront project built by an Emirati investor, and speculate that the UAE’s strong economic and political ties with the ruling regime in Serbia have likely swung its vote.

Another most peculiar speech was that of Hungary, ran by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, President Vučić’s illiberal friend. Hungary’s representative attributed its abstention to the detrimental effect that the resolution would supposedly have on the stability of the region, but ended her speech in expressing “deep appreciation for the president of Serbia”, commended him for promoting development in his country and for the fact that the Hungarian community can always count on him (video UNGA meeting, 2h38’34’’). Hungary’s stance on the resolution was thus not even ostensibly principled, but had a purely transactional vibe. Hungary was also among those states who chose not to mention that magic word genocide – she regretted “events” in Srebrenica.  The same stands for China, which referred to Srebrenica as a “tragedy”, for Syria as an “incident”, for Azerbaijan as “crimes” and for Venezuela as “atrocities”.

As the voting results were being announced, and as it transpired that fewer states voted in favour of the resolution than those who voted against, abstained or had not voted at all – even though this is legally irrelevant and the resolution was duly adopted – it became apparent that President Vučić would use this result to declare a victory of sorts. And so, in a bizarre display, Serbia’s President draped himself in a Serbian flag while sitting at Serbia’s table at the General Assembly.

(This photograph is from his official Instagram account. The caption says: “For us, surrender is never an option! I am proud of free Serbia and the heroic Serbian people!” The emojis speak for themselves.)

In his speech after the vote, the beflagged President repeated his main arguments on the resolution being an attempt of the big and powerful to politicize the issue, (video UNGA meeting, 2h46’34’’), wanting to pin the moral and political guilt on one nation (video UNGA meeting, 2h48’40’’), to stigmatize it, an endeavour in which they failed (video UNGA meeting, 2h49’15’’). He expressed gratitude for the opportunity to speak “publicly and loudly” for small and proud countries against “those very powerful, without insulting anyone” (video UNGA meeting, 2h49’45’’). President Vučić repeated that he bowed his head “before the victims, admitting all of our mistakes, all terrible crimes that some of our compatriots committed.” (video UNGA meeting, 2h50’08’). He concluded by thanking everyone who did not vote in favour of the resolution, but also those who voted in favour for “opening our eyes” (video UNGA meeting, 2h51’28’’). Special thanks went to the Serbian people, who “were united more than ever. Noting could have united Serbian people better than what has happening here today” (video UNGA meeting, 2h49’43’’).

And back home again…

During the UNGA meeting, ministers in the Government of Serbia gathered in the Presidency building, watching the video feed from the Assembly floor.  As they did so, they all draped themselves in Serbian flags .

And as the President was preparing to address the nation from New York and then travel back home, his surrogates predictably interpreted the results of the vote on the resolution as a victory (even though, again, the resolution was actually adopted by the UNGA). His supporters organized car processions with torches and flags in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš and Kosovska Mitrovica.  Headlines in the tabloid press greeted President Vučić on his return from New York with headlines such as: “Defeat of the West! Vučić’s heroic battle and a great moral victory: The world stood by Serbia!”, “Chess mate: Big Success of Our Diplomacy” and “Triumph. Serbia defended the truth and its honour”. The whole vibe was that of a major victory at the World Cup, or something of the kind.

As after any big win, the victor had to thank those who made the victory possible. Here we return to the windows of the Emirati-built Tower Belgrade. One line of text was running horizontally, another vertically, in Serbian Cyrillic script. The names of those states that did not support the resolution scrolled horizontally (e.g. Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, etc), while the text scrolling vertically said “thank you, friends.” And all those friends were thanked without discrimination, regardless of whether they voted against, or abstained, or simply did not vote at all. The speed of the scrolling text gave at least the present author a “happy, go lucky” feeling.

Epilogue

The only true winner of this episode seems to be President Vučić, who used it for domestic political purposes. But there is a broader lesson here too. Although one cannot dispute Vučić’s effectiveness in arguing against the resolution both at home and abroad, the failure of the resolution’s sponsors to muster broader support cannot be attributed only to his lobbying, or to his powerful non-Western allies. A part of the responsibility also rests on the sponsors of the resolution themselves. They pushed for the resolution although it was becoming quite obvious that it would not gain wider support, let alone consensus. It seems to me that the resolution’s sponsors were not steering the process in a way that could ensure the result that the victims of Srebrenica deserve.

Moreover, for Vučić, politically the resolution was a gift from heaven. Its adoption came in the midst of the campaign for local elections in Serbia. (These elections included a repeat of the vote for the Belgrade City Council, which the opposition claimed were rigged in December 2023, a claim confirmed in the ODIHR report and in the resolution of the EU Parliament). So, instead of focusing on the issues of sewage, clear drinking water, public transportation, urbanism, childcare, pollution (burning questions in some municipalities in Serbia), the local elections were framed around the great battle against the stigma of genocide. And – it worked. While I am not claiming that the nationalistic mobilization around the resolution was the decisive factor here – the regime’s control rests on several pillars – President Vučić’s coalition retained power in all but a few cities and municipalities in Serbia.

As shown above, President Vučić mentioned international law on several occasions in New York, if only in passing. Still, his address in the UNGA echoed Russian official narratives on international law based on whataboutist arguments about Western hypocrisy, Western double standards and abuse of international law (the same narrative was present in the addresses of Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua). His “genocidal people” story, which had no actual grounding in the text of the resolution and was designed to manipulate domestic audiences, built upon dominant domestic narratives on the world, Serbia’s place in it and on international law. In particular, the dominant narrative on international law in Serbia incorporates anti-Western sentiment, constantly castigating the West as hypocritical (a narrative hard to counter due to NATO’s illegal use of force in 1999). Perceptions that international law is selective (e.g., that it does not apply to the big and powerful but is always used to punish small and proud states; that war crimes prosecutions are yet another tool for victimizing Serbs, etc.), have long prevailed. These kinds of narratives exist in academic discourse, not just among the general public (readers might be interested in the study of public international textbooks in the region of the former Yugoslavia that Marko Milanović and I have published in The Oxford Handbook of International Law in Europe). The story presented in this post, that of the UNGA resolution on a Srebrenica Remembrance Day, neatly fits into these preexisting narratives.

Meanwhile, four days after the UNGA meeting, and four before the local elections in Serbia, President Vučić and the German Ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Ms. Anke Konrad, laid the cornerstone for a new factory, another German investment in Serbia.

FOTO TANJUG/VLADIMIR ŠPORČIĆ
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