Last year, when commemorating the July 11, 1995 commencement of hostilities in Srebrenica, Bosnia & Herzegovina that ended in the deaths of 8,000 men, the White House wrote that, “only by holding the perpetrators of the genocide to account can we offer some measure of justice to help heal their loved ones.” Political condemnation is, in other words, not enough; criminal prosecution should follow such remarks. Today, the United States and other international actors who have acknowledged the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (“ISIS”) genocidal acts must honor the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal in Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) and follow international humanitarian law by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide.
The 11-day massacre in Srebrenica is often noted – and rightfully so – for the horrific killings of thousands of Muslim Bosniaks, most of whom were unarmed civilians, by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (“Bosnian Serb Army”). The murders, carried out under the pretense of impunity, specifically targeted a religious subpopulation – a violation, as noted by the ICTY, of article II of the Geneva Conventions.
Srebrenica’s men were killed whilst Srebrenica’s women were sexually assaulted and raped. By raping and sexually mutilating the wives and daughters of the men they had just murdered, the Bosnian Serb Army aimed to comprehensively “assert [its] superiority and victory over the Muslims.” As the landmark trial of Akayesu - a man involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide - established, such actions are not separate to, but rather components of, genocide.
ISIS’s current actions in Iraq and Syria are remarkably similar to those in Srebrenica 21 years ago: ISIS fighters specifically target religious and ethnic minorites like the Yazidis – as acknowledged by US Secretary of State John Kerry - and they systematically rape and sexually enslave Yazidi women. As in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, where rape served as a military tactic intended to “transmit a new ethnic identity to the child,” today’s rape of minority populations by ISIS serves as a central tenet of the group’s military quest for regional domination.
Such actions are not only morally repugnant but also criminal and prosecutable under international humanitarian law. The convictions of Bosnian Serbs for genocidal actions in Srebrenica should not exist in a temporal vacuum; they entered humanitarian law as precedence for the future prosecution of genocide, thereby providing justice to victims at the time and offering legal tools for future genocide prosecutions elsewhere.
Today, the international community should honor the memory of those killed and raped in Srebrenica and the lessons learned from that conflict by prosecuting ISIS fighters for genocide. By doing so, the international community will acknowledge its responsibility to protect victims of genocide, recognize the legal precedents established in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, deter future fighters from joining the organization’s ranks, and provide justice to ISIS’s victims.