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Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the support for the Srebrenica genocide commemoration.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to hold this short debate today, one week before the official anniversary commemoration of the terrible massacre that took place in July 1995 in Srebrenica. I begin by drawing the House’s attention to my interest in this matter. In October last year I visited Bosnia as the guest of the UK charity Remembering Srebrenica, and I am now a member of the charity’s north-west regional board. I know that other colleagues have also visited Bosnia with Remembering Srebrenica, and every single one of us who has done so has been profoundly affected by what we saw and heard there.

The House is familiar with the history of this terrible atrocity. In July 1995 Bosnian Serb forces overran and captured Srebrenica, a town that in 1993 had been declared a UN safe area. In the days after the fall of Srebrenica more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim boys and men were separated from their families, systematically massacred and buried in mass graves—some after desperately trekking for days to seek safety. Many of those graves were then dug open again and the remains removed and scattered across new graves in a bid to hide the evidence of what had happened, leaving families with the agony of not knowing where their loved ones have been buried. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported, while throughout Bosnia between 20,000 and 50,000 women and girls suffered rape and sexual violence. The appalling events that took place at Srebrenica have rightly been characterised by international courts as genocide.

Serbian aggression and a determined process of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia lie at the root of this atrocity, but the international community also has charges to answer. UN troops responsible for protecting the safe area status of Srebrenica turned away thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had travelled there to seek their protection, in some cases delivering them directly into the hands of the Serb army. Then they ran away themselves. It is not surprising that the sense of having been let down by the international community is palpable in Bosnia, and not just in Srebrenica. Again and again, during my visit last year, Bosnians told me of their anger and bafflement at the US decision, in the autumn of 1995, to end NATO bombings of Serb positions in Sarajevo following the desperate siege that the city had endured since 1992, just as the Serbs were within days of being defeated.

The anger and hurt continues today because 22 years on families are still living with not only the horror of what they saw and experienced but the agony of losing their loved ones—still, in many cases, waiting desperately in the hope that their remains will be found and identified. I pay tribute to the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which continues its painstaking efforts to identify the victims.

May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate? In Northern Ireland we have a particular understanding of those who are missing and have never been found; therefore, this resonates clearly with us as elected representatives from Northern Ireland. Does she agree that the poignancy of last year’s memorial, where the bones of a further 127 victims were identified and then buried 21 years on, must live in our memories? Does she agree that this House and the Government must look to ensure that this never happens again, whether in Northern Ireland, Srebrenica or anywhere else in the world?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman and his fellow Northern Ireland compatriots have a particular understanding of the horror that occurs when violence and murder take place. He is right that we repeatedly fail to learn the lessons, and yet even in our own lifetimes we have examples close to home, in the Balkans and in Rwanda—around the world—that remind us of the lessons that we should take on board.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. May I also draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I have also been on one of Remembering Srebrenica’s visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and she is right that it is a profoundly moving experience. I am glad that she mentions the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which has been absolutely vital in helping about 70% of families to know what happened to the remains of their loved ones who were missing as a result of the conflict.

There is still a huge amount of work to be done—around 8,000 victims of the war are still unidentified and missing —so the work of the commission is really important, including its groundbreaking work on data matching and DNA matching. That work is useful and crucial not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but in natural disasters, and I fear it will be increasingly important in tracking down missing persons from conflicts such as the current one in Syria. Does my hon. Friend agree that while Britain and other donors have been quite generous in supporting the international commission, it often lives too much from hand to mouth and we really need much more predictable, long-term funding for its work? Even though it should not have to exist, it does have to; it is vital and sadly will remain so for a long time to come.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Anyone who has seen for themselves the exceptional work carried out by the ICMP will understand how protracted, detailed and painstaking it has had to be and that its applicability both to natural disasters and to—should they occur, God forbid—other conflicts could be of importance for many years to come. I hope that in responding to the debate the Minister will say something about continued funding for it, because during my visit last year there were certainly concerns that that could no longer be assured.

It is not just the memory of what happened 22 years ago that causes such concern, consternation and dismay in Bosnia today. Still today Bosnian Muslims experience discrimination and injustice. In 2015, in an aggressively muscular display of power, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik held an illegal referendum attempting to mark 9 January as an official holiday. It was deemed unconstitutional by the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for not drawing on the values shared by all three of the constituent nations.

During my visit I was told of continuing levels of unemployment and poverty, and of young people leaving Bosnia because there is no hope for their futures. I was told that Serbs refuse to allow the history of the genocide to be taught in schools, while the Dayton agreement, which ended the conflict, has baked in territorial and political arrangements that reflect and embed the ethnic cleansing that took place and leave non-Serbs shut out of public office.

It is right to recognise the positive actions of the international community and the convictions secured at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The UK has been at the forefront of steps to address Bosnians’ continuing sense of injustice, leading the way in drafting a UN Security Council resolution to mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide and calling for 11 July to be established as a memorial day for its victims—a resolution that, shamefully, was condemned by Serbia and vetoed by Russia. But discrimination against Bosnian Muslims continues to this day. The wider threat to peace continues, as do efforts—in particular by Russia—to disrupt the legitimate use of power in the region. I hope the Minister will update the House on UK and international efforts to address that.

In the second part of my remarks, I shall turn to action here in the UK to recognise and honour the victims of the genocide and learn lessons from it. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the aims and work of Remembering Srebrenica, teaching current and future generations about the consequences of hate and intolerance. Let me give some examples from my own city. In May this year, one of my fellow travellers to Bosnia, Dr Robina Shah—deputy lieutenant of Greater Manchester, working with Greater Manchester police—and Paul Giannasi of the International Network for Hate Studies, organised a hate crime conference in Manchester to raise awareness of how low-level prejudice can escalate to full-scale murder. On 16 July, local community champions in my region will walk 23 miles from Blackburn cathedral to Manchester city centre to commemorate the atrocity and show community cohesion. On 13 July I shall be proud to join predominantly female contributors in Manchester cathedral as part of Remembering Srebrenica’s annual remembrance service.

I know that the Government, too, are working to remind young people and communities of the terrible genocide and encourage them to learn lessons from it. The Department for Communities and Local Government funds activity to raise awareness of the massacre, but it is not clear how well that work is integrated into wider Government strategies to address hate crime and extremism, including work with the Department for Education and with schools. Will the Minister update the House on cross-Government action to ensure that the anniversary and the lessons we must learn from it are never forgotten?

Tragically, extremism and hate are still everywhere around us today, as we have been so painfully reminded by the return of terror to the streets of Manchester and London in recent weeks. We are trying once again to make sense of the hatred and intolerance that give rise to such extremist violence, which is all too often followed by reprisals and, for example, by a rise in Islamophobic hate crime. The lesson from Srebrenica and other genocides is that such violence and hatred creep up on us in stages. They begin with differentiation and discrimination, fostering and fostered by a sense of grievance or perceived grievance. Genocide results when they proceed through stages of organised persecution and execution, followed by denial of what took place. Yet at every stage, as we watch hate unfold, we have the opportunity to break into that journey and halt it.

The Government have promised to bring forward counter-extremism proposals in this Parliament. I suggest that in doing so they could learn from an understanding of the steps that lead to genocide. In particular, I hope Ministers take note of how low-level prejudice can escalate to crime, violence and murder. In our strategy for tackling extremism and extremist hate, we must actively promote tolerance in and between our communities; work with them and encourage them to educate and share with one another; support individuals bravely speaking out against hate speech; recognise and act on inequality and injustice; and intervene at the earliest possible stage.

I am glad that we have the opportunity in Parliament today to commemorate the atrocity suffered by the people of Srebrenica. But commemoration must be accompanied by action, so I urge on Ministers a determination to learn the lessons of how intolerance takes root, to be alert to the markers that identify its growth, and to be resolute in working with our diverse communities to tackle it early and comprehensively. That would be a fine memorial to those who died in Srebrenica 22 years ago.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) on her heartfelt and powerful contribution to this timely debate. It was also interesting to hear interventions from the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), and I will try to address some of the points they raised.

As has rightly been pointed out, the genocide committed in and around Srebrenica some 22 years ago undoubtedly represents one of the darkest chapters in the post-war history of our continent. Because of my family background, I had more reason than many, perhaps, to have hoped that genocide had been consigned to the history books. My late mother was from Silesia in Germany; she was born in November 1939 and was forcibly removed—a phrase that later became “ethnically cleansed”—in the early part of 1945, towards the end of the war, as the red army advanced. Unspeakable atrocities took place, as many hon. Members will know; perhaps there was less sympathy for the civilian population of Germany at that time, but none the less those episodes were something that I was brought up with and told about as a young boy.

I was 30 when the terrible events in Srebrenica took place. There was a sense that we were seeing them with our very own eyes; in many ways, they seemed more horrific because there were live TV broadcasts. Many of us will remember how the Dutch UN peacekeeping force was pushed to one side by Mladić. The bellicose rhetoric of Milošević and others in that part of the world, in the years before and immediately afterwards, was close in our minds.

I want to address a number of issues that the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston raised. I am proud, as she is, that the United Kingdom takes the matter seriously; I hope we will continue to do so, and to fund it accordingly, in the years to come. It is difficult to talk about lessons being learned. The evil that man does, has done since time immemorial and will probably do in future, in a whole range of different ways, is a terrible thing. Clearly we need to try to educate young people about the precise aspects of what has gone on, whether in the holocaust in the 1940s or in this important genocide in our backyard in the western Balkans. However, I am always a little concerned about that easy phrase that politicians use—“lessons will be learned”. That is not to say that we should not address these issues fundamentally, in historic terms, but ultimately I fear that there will always be people with evil in their heart and evil in their mind.

When one looks at the collapse of Yugoslavia, it is very easy to blame it on forces that go back many hundreds of years or on the actions of particular politicians in the early 1990s. There were a number of decidedly evil people who held their sway because of the power that they had, military and politically, in that region at that time.

I very much appreciate the tone that the Minister is taking in responding to the debate and I absolutely understand that the history of humanity is littered with evil and genocide; as I said, there has not been just one genocide even in our own living memory. However, one of the interesting things that Remembering Srebrenica and other campaigners have drawn attention to is the staged process that begins with low-level prejudice and can ultimately lead to the type of terrible atrocity that we saw in 1995. Does the Minister agree that that staged process at least offers some sort of structure for trying to prevent such evil from completing its journey and, if so, can he say whether it is informing the Government’s thinking in relation to counter-extremism strategies?

I very much hope that it is; the hon. Lady made her point very powerfully. Of course, trying to break the process down so that some concerted strategy can apply across the board does not necessarily bear with the facts, but the hon. Lady has certainly referred to one of the most important strands of the broader counter-terrorism strategy.

The hon. Lady is right that this anniversary is a moment not only to remember those who died but to reaffirm our own determination to prevent genocide in the future. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons, which was mentioned earlier. It has identified over 70% of those who were missing at the end of the Bosnian conflict, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield made clear. That work includes identifying the remains of some 7,000 of those who were killed at Srebrenica. In a way, that is a remarkable achievement, but I accept that for many hundreds, even thousands, of relatives there is still a lot of work to be done. I take very much on board the suggestion that we remember those who are still missing and stand in solidarity with their families.

In March, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office welcomed some of those who are still searching for their loved ones, including people such as Nura Begovic, whose brother is of course still missing. We had a meeting at that time that was jointly organised with the ICMP. The hon. Lady rightly talked about the ICMP’s work. This Government—like, I hope, all UK Governments of whatever colour in the future—will continue to provide resources for that work. We have provided some £3 million overall since 2000, a period that obviously extends across the political divide. I am delighted that my FCO colleague, the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), remains a commissioner for the ICMP.

The Government have been a strong supporter of the Srebrenica commemorations, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the UK. On the 20th anniversary in 2015, Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal represented the UK at the Potočari memorial site. Representatives of the British embassy in Sarajevo attend commemoration events every year and in their doing so I hope that we are playing our part in demonstrating that the United Kingdom stands together with Bosnians in expressing our horror at the crimes committed in Srebrenica. Those representatives show our continued support for justice and reconciliation.

As has been pointed out, we also rightly commemorate Srebrenica here in the United Kingdom. Last year, the erstwhile Foreign Secretary, now the Chancellor, hosted a memorial event in the FCO. Her Majesty’s Government support this year’s commemoration at the Guildhall here in London; we will, of course, be represented at it.

We are also giving some £1.2 million to the Remembering Srebrenica project, which works to ensure that this appalling episode in European history is properly commemorated. The project itself aims to bring together people from all walks of life, from all cultures and from all faiths to highlight the destructive nationalism and hatred that lay at the heart of the Srebrenica massacre. In my view, one way of doing that is through raising awareness of genocide by taking people out to Bosnia. I appreciate that the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield have already been a part of that process.

I know that the hon. Lady has been there and I hope that many other MPs will go out to the western Balkans, not only to commemorate Srebrenica but to see some of the positivity in other parts of that region. Croatia, which is next door, is a member of the European Union, while other nations in that region seek to join the European family. We are rightly very proud in this country of our role in this valuable project.

The United Kingdom also strives for Srebrenica to be remembered around the world. In 2015, we drafted a United Nations Security Council resolution marking the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica; as was rightly pointed out, it was disappointing, but perhaps not entirely surprising, that both Serbia and Russia objected to it and ultimately Russia, which has the power of veto, vetoed it. I hope that we will continue to make similar efforts for similar anniversaries in the future and hopefully we will eventually have a unity of purpose within the UN.

Of course, we wanted at that juncture in 2015 to remember all the victims of the Bosnian conflict, to show solidarity with survivors and to reflect on the UN’s failure to stand up and be counted on that very dark day in Srebrenica in 1995. Of course, that failure is recognised as one of the organisation’s darkest moments. As I have said, sadly Russia vetoed our resolution in 2015, but we remain committed to working through the international organisations to prevent genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The theme of the Srebrenica commemorations this year is “Breaking the Silence: Gender and Genocide”. As the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, it is important to remember that while those killed in Srebrenica were almost exclusively men and boys—they were very deliberately chosen to be killed—many, many thousands of women and girls suffered appalling sexual violence and of course were left behind after the Bosnian conflict came to an end.

The FCO has been at the forefront of international work to tackle this issue since we launched our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative in 2012. Our current focus is on ending the stigma associated with sexual violence. Last Thursday, the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a declaration against that stigma. The UK had a hand in that declaration, because the text was brokered by the United Nations Population Fund as part of a UK-funded project. It is just one example of our work to end such stigma, which obviously applies well beyond the issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it really applies across the world, with elements of sexual violence in areas where there has been a major stigma associated with it. We fully support the decision by Remembering Srebrenica to highlight the issue of stigma in this year’s commemoration.

As the hon. Member for Strangford will know from his part of the world, it is also important that we look to and build for the future. It is vital that, in looking back, we remember the victims and try to do our best to prevent anything like Srebrenica from ever happening again. However, we also need to look forward, to build for the future and to ensure that Srebrenica is not forever defined by the terrible episodes in 1995 or indeed by the past in general.

As has rightly been pointed out, reconciliation is a vital step on that road, which is why tackling stigma is so important. It is also why the UK has funded projects to help displaced people returning to the Srebrenica area; those projects have helped to create some 90 new jobs for young people in the region.

I conclude by saying that we must never forget the terrible events in Srebrenica 22 years ago. Remembering is important, not only to honour the dead but to remind ourselves that even in these modern times—civilised times, as we like to think of them—such horrors definitely remain possible and we must try to prevent them from ever happening again.

The UK can be proud of what we have done to ensure that the victims of Srebrenica are never forgotten and I very much hope that we continue that work in a similar vein. We can also be very proud of the work we are continuing to do to help the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina to look forward to the future and hopefully to build a more prosperous, harmonious and stable nation for the future. However, I fear that such work will come to nought unless, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear during his own visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina as recently as April, the present-day leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina deliver much-needed reforms. It really is time for the politics of hope to prevail over those of division.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.