In Srebrenica, 25 years ago, the darkest page of Europe’s modern history was written. In the early 1990’s, European integration was making progress and former communist states were looking towards the West and to Brussels for building peaceful and prosperous democracies on our continent. In the same period, a war raged in the heart of Europe. The wars and destruction that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia devastated the lives of the people in the Western Balkans.
In July 1995 in the hills around Srebrenica, over 8,000 people, mainly boys and men, were systematically and deliberately killed. The people of Srebrenica counted on the UN and the city’s status as a safe haven but instead became victims of a genocide. International courts have established these atrocities as genocide and the facts of what happened are clear to all of us today. The tragedy of Srebrenica took place at the depth of the war that swept across Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 that claimed around 100,000 victims, half of them civilians.
We remember what happened in Srebrenica as a tragic part of our shared European history. Learning from our past means to use what history has taught us to build a better future, based on a shared understanding of our history and its tragedies. We also owe it to the victims and their families, with many survivors still remembering today the immense atrocities they witnessed 25 years ago. The lives of many have been impacted forever and we continue to honour the victims and to feel with all the people that lost beloved ones and still suffer.
As a Spaniard, I can relate quite well with the devastating impact of a civil war and with how difficult it is to face the past. The events of the Spanish civil war and the suffering were a vivid memory in my family, and only when the dictatorship ended in 1975, Spain began to build a community based on reconciliation, democracy, freedom. The prospect of joining the European project was central to Spain’s success. The transition to democracy initially relied on a selective memory of past events. More recently, however, the story of the civil war has re-emerged. We are recovering and reassessing our past, which is spurring debates between citizens, historians and even lawmakers. History must be remembered in its entirety, not selectively. Not to be imprisoned by it, but to learn from it.
25 years after Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronting its past and revisionism of historical facts and inflammatory rhetoric are harmful. The glorification of war criminals is unacceptable. Citizens expect a competent, courageous and visionary political leadership, to face facts and steer societies towards a better future. Day-to-day reconciliation has to become a reality in schools, on the streets, in villages and in cities. Leaders of the region have a duty to bring their citizens together, especially the youth, around a common ambition, built on trust, mutual understanding and respect for one another.
Right from the start, the European Union has been a project aimed at overcoming the tragedies of the past. Integrating the Western Balkans is another essential part of this project.
When we talk about the path towards the European Union, we stress key elements such as the rule of law and regional cooperation. These are not empty phrases or technicalities. The rule of law means building states and societies that are pluralistic and democratic, open societies that are based on non-discrimination and in which businesses, people and civil society can flourish. The rule of law means an environment that allows independent media to perform their vital work. It means being able to find a job based on your own competences and aspirations, not on political party affiliation.
Empowering societies, favouring cooperation across borders, promoting pluralism are the best way to enrich democracy and disarm nationalism. Young people in particular deserve to be listened to and to be given opportunities to grow and contribute to the Europe of tomorrow.
While remembering Srebrenica, the European Union stands by the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans. We are committed to doing our part, to build a future together in which conflicts and atrocities are no longer conceivable. I count on the same level of commitment and dedication from Western Balkans leaders to work actively with us towards building a peaceful and prosperous future together.
This op-ed has been published in several media outlets. Please find a selection below: