Westminster Hall Debate: Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration

Mark made the following contributions to the Westminster Hall debate on the Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration.


The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

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.

Kate Green

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?

Mark Field

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 and 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.