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Perspective: Women, War, And Reflections On Srebrenica

Bosnians mourn over the coffin of a relative during the preparation for a mass burial at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery in 2010.
Bosnians mourn over the coffin of a relative during the preparation for a mass burial at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery in 2010.

The issue of women and war has never been more prominent on the international agenda than today. Horrifying accounts of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls, hundreds of women and girls in Islamic State (IS) slave markets, and scores of women "disappeared" in Syria leave no room for doubt that war is no longer -- if it ever was -- confined to soldiers on the battlefield.

Much of the focus so far has been on war-related sexual violence. The United Nations has appointed a special representative to the secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict and the UN secretary-general reports annually on sexual violence in wars around the globe. In one of the most unexpected developments, the United Kingdom's Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict initiative, unveiled in 2012 by former Foreign Secretary William Hague and supported by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, placed accountability for war-related sexual violence prominently on the political agenda for the first time. The obstacles that thwart our efforts to address sexual violence justify serious attention. But there is also room to further expand our focus to recognize -- and ensure accountability for -- the many other distinctive harms war holds for women.

In our work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) we have seen first-hand the importance of addressing war crimes committed against both men and women. The events in Srebrenica in July 1995 stand out as a particularly compelling reminder.

Srebrenica is a dramatic example of how gender influences the experiences of war victims. As the Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica in July 1995, most of the Bosnian Muslim men and boys were rounded up, imprisoned in appalling conditions, and thousands were executed en masse in the course of just a few days. The Bosnian Muslim women and girls suffered a different fate. Up to 30,000 were terrorized, separated from their male family members, forced onto overcrowded buses, and expelled from their homes and communities. While the women survived -- and the men did not -- they were consigned to a myriad of devastating consequences as they sought to reestablish their lives and to repair their broken families and communities: the reality of being displaced and trying to return home; the struggle to meet basic needs for themselves and their surviving children; dealing with the psychological trauma of the genocide; and their protracted search for still-missing family members -- wives searching for husbands, mothers searching for sons, sisters searching for brothers. These heartbreaking facts -- recorded in the testimonies of witnesses brought before the ICTY -- remain an all-too-often overlooked part of the Srebrenica atrocity.

For international prosecutors, faced with the twin realities of overwhelming crimes and limited resources, there was always a risk that cases would focus on the Srebrenica killings to the exclusion of crimes committed against the women and girls. Fortunately, that risk was ultimately circumvented at the ICTY. Prosecuting only the killings would have meant not just failing to address the crimes directed at the women and girls, but it would have also obscured the picture of genocide in Srebrenica. As the ICTY's Appeals Chamber has confirmed, it was the killings in combination with the expulsions that proved intent to destroy the targeted Bosnian Muslim community, resulting in the judicial determination of genocide. Without evidence about the impact of the Srebrenica crimes on the women and girls, there would have been no ICTY acknowledgement that the Srebrenica atrocities had indeed shattered the foundations of the targeted Bosnian Muslim community.

But the lessons from Srebrenica do not end there. The quest for accountability has been a defining feature of the Srebrenica genocide. In the midst of their overwhelming everyday problems of basic survival, the foremost demand of the surviving women was always bringing those most responsible to justice. They advocated relentlessly over many years for the arrest and transfer to The Hague of wartime Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and his army chief Ratko Mladic -- a demand finally realized after each had evaded capture for more than a decade. The women have also facilitated our work at the ICTY in many ways: as witnesses; as advocates; and as interlocutors. Anyone questioning the role of accountability as a precondition for postconflict reconciliation should spend time with the Srebrenica women.

As the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide approaches, we would do well to reflect more deeply on the lessons Srebrenica holds about women and war. The international community will only stand still for a few moments to commemorate what happened in Srebrenica before turning back to the pressing demands of today's conflicts. But for the Srebrenica women, those few horrific days in July 1995 have affected all aspects of their lives every day since. The approaching anniversary is an opportunity to repay their courage, determination, and humanity with renewed commitment to better addressing the full range of issues affecting women during and after war. A good start would be an integrated approach to redress, featuring justice and accountability, economic and social support and compensation. In October this year, marking 15 years since the adoption of landmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, the UN Security Council will take stock of the progress made so far, informed by a UN Global Study. This review will provide an important platform for future action.

And we need to ensure that survivors cannot be subjected to further trauma by denial of the crimes committed against them. In the face of incontrovertible evidence that genocide occurred in Srebrenica in July 1995, the surviving women deserve at least that much.

Serge Brammertz is the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a function he has held since 2008. Michelle Jarvis is the principal legal counsel in the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where she has worked for the past 15 years.

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