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10th Commemoration of genocide in Bosnia Herzegovina "Srebrenica 11 July". Address by Dr Sev Ozdowski, Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Victoria University Lecture Theatre, Footscray 1 July 2005

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10th Commemoration of Genocide in

Bosnia Herzegovina “Srebrenica 11 July”

Address by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Victoria University Lecture Theatre, Footscray 1 July 2005


Thank you Ms Senada Softic-Telalovic, Chair, Australian Council of Bosnian Herzegovinian Organisation for inviting me to address this important commemoration.

Allow me to start with acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, and to pay my respects to their elders both past and present.

I make this acknowledgement at any function where I speak in order to:

� pay my respects to the oldest continuous culture in the world; � stress that Australia is a diverse society and that the First Australians are an important part of this diversity; and � Express our aspiration to a just and fair Australia for all.

Fellow speakers, members of Bosnian community, survivors of this terrible war, ladies and gentlemen, all.


I accepted the invitation to address you tonight not only because of my sorrow for the victims of Srebrenica and my personal commitment to the elimination of all violation of human rights.

I have accepted it too, because I was born in Poland shortly after the end of WW II and I understand the tragedy of Bosnian people. As you know, my country of birth has witnessed many genocidal events throughout its history and these were the subject of many discussions and commemorations in my childhood.

For example, as early as in the 13th Century, ‘pagan ’ Prussian tribes were exterminated by a Christian order of knights, left over from one of the Crusades.

More recently, during WW II in German occupied Poland we witnessed the Jewish holocaust and the Nazi constructed concentration camps, or more correctly, the killing of humans in industrialised slaughter houses. And today there are some that deny that the holocaust has ever happened.

Poles also remember that during WW II there were the 14,000 Polish officers murdered by the Soviet NKVD in Katyn and other places, and the hundred thousands of others who were forcibly removed from Soviet occupied Eastern Poland to die from hunger and mistreatment in Siberian forced labor camps. The contemporary Russian leaders still refuse to acknowledge that the Katyn mass-

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murder constitutes genocide.

And I still remember my family members and friends waiting for their loved ones to return home long after the war had finished, making frantic inquiries with Red Cross to find their husbands and sons or simply trying to establish where their graves were located.

I have also accepted your invitation because I strongly believe that we constantly need to remind ourselves not only that genocide has happened in the past, but also that it may happen again in our contemporary world. We need to work on building protections to ensure that genocide is never committed again against any group of fellow humans.

And finally I am here because today ’s 10th commemoration of genocide in Bosnia Herzegovina is a very important event not only for Bosnian people, but for all Australians. We need to remember this.

It is an event not only of sorrow and remembrance of victims, but also an important event for the education of others, and to ensure in time that future genocide could be prevented from occurring.

Establishment of UN

The 26 June 2005 has marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. The United Nations was established, among others, to promote and encourage respect for human rights. Article 1 of the 1945 UN Charter defines promotion of human rights as one of the UN objectives.

This was done because the community of nations, in the aftermath of heinous crimes against humanity that were committed during WW II, concluded that human rights are too important to be left in the exclusive domain of individual state governments. The United Nations decided that human rights need to be protected by an international system of law. Soon after the UN member countries adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other international instruments to protect human rights.

The crime of genocide came very early to the attention of the United Nations. As early as December 1946 the UN General Assembly resolved that genocide is a crime under the international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the UN and condemned by the civilized world. Two years latter, in 1948, the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved and open for adoption by the member countries.

Article 2 of the Convention defined genocide as any of the acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group by:

� killing members of the group; � causing serious bodily or mental harm; � deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

� and so on.

So in other words, whether it is Srebrenica, Katyn or Rwanda, this sort of large-scale systematic slaughter of a group of people, who share some common bond, by an organised military or police force - that constitutes genocide.

The Convention also established that people committing genocide, or inciting it, or conspiring to commit it, or complicit in genocide should be punished.

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This means that the international community of nations has clearly established the

rules - genocide is a crime against humanity, no government should commit

genocide and any person associated with it should be severely punished.

Events at Srebrenica

But despite all the international law and the UN, the events over the course of 11, 12 and 13 July 1995 in Srebrenica happened.

Some 8,000 Bosniak men and teenage boys from the region were massacred by the Serb Army of General Ratko Mladic. There is no doubt about what happened there ten years ago. Now even the Bosnian Serb government-appointed ‘Commission of Investigation ’ admits that Bosnian Serb forces massacred at least 7,800 Muslim men and boys.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia unanimously ruled that it was an act of genocide.

And what is particularly difficult to understand is that all this happened with UN forces nearby; first disarming the local Muslims and offering them a “safe area”, and then withdrawing and leaving Muslims to their fate.

And it is also difficult to understand that it happened in Europe, and only 50 years after the end of WWII, where one could be forgiven for thinking that the mass killings of civilian populations in WWII and the Jewish Holocaust would mean that subsequent generations would surely adhere to the mantra of: “never, never again”.

Then of course, in the recent past outside Europe there was Pol Pot in Cambodia, genocide in Rwanda, and perhaps Darfur presently!!

There is no doubt that the contemporary UN system of protection has failed the victims of genocide in Srebrenica, Rwanda and other places.

The Role of the United Nations

In fact it must be said that between April 1994 and July 1995 the world did not observe the finest hour of the United Nations.

A few months ago I attended a commemoration for the 11th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. It shares with Srebrenica, the dubious distinction of highlighting extreme examples of confusion and delay by the United Nations HQ.

This fatal ambivalence completely paralysed any life preserving action by UN peacekeeping forces on the ground. Then ignominious withdrawal came, followed by wholesale slaughter of thousands of people, who had sought refuge with those UN forces.

UN Human Rights Reform Agenda

There is a hope, however, that the current UN human rights reform agenda, that has been signaled by the Secretary-General, and warmly received by at least America and Australia, will be allowed to run its course as it may provide better protection against future genocide.

Obviously as part of those reforms, the issue of peace-keeping forces and decisive, timely action on the ground by those forces will need to be at the forefront of change.

We may well have the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and

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Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the 1998 creation of the International

Criminal Court (ICC), which is specifically charged to hold accountable and bring to justice those responsible for mass murder, genocide and war crimes.

But if the result is just more and more commemorations of this sort today, where the ghostly voices of the innumerable dead reproach us with our collective failure - then we must find better solutions.

Characteristics of Genocide

So let us use the reminding time of this commemoration speech to see what else we could do as people to protect the world from any future genocide.

Let us look back at Srebrenica and other places of genocide and ask a question - “what are the key characteristics of genocide?”

First we will find that genocide is not new. In fact, in commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide I would like us all to remember that genocide is as old as mankind itself.

In the Old Testament, Yahweh directs Saul through Samuel to:

“ ….go and strike down (the enemy tribe of) Amalek; put him under the ban with all he possesses. Do not spare him but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey”.

I will leave the interpretation of such utterances to biblical scholars, much better qualified than I for such a task. The point I wish to make here is that genocide is not a novel, contemporary invention, but it has been with the human race for centuries.

Second, information about the occurrence of the genocide is available to the nations of the world, while it is still being carried out. Srebrenica was no different.

Third, invariably little or nothing is done at the time of the genocide by exterior nations or bodies to halt the genocide.

Fourth, genocide is usually organised by government. It is invariably about politics, or more particularly about political power and dominance. Either the assuming of it or about the maintenance and strengthening of it.

And finally, there are always those who are willing to deny that genocide has taken place. This has happened also in case of the Srebrenica massacre.

Why does Genocide Happen?

Clearly genocide is a form of evil which mankind has very great difficulty in removing.

Perhaps this partially reflects the ongoing need to reconcile mankind ’s primitive survival instincts, which demands that one “group” must prevail over the “other group” in the competition for scarce resources.

Often this struggle becomes further infected by either ideological or religious fervor. This contrasts with the evolution of a finer, civilising behavior, which attempts to channel this murderous aggression into more productive paths.

Role of Civil Society

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Of course the collective name for ‘finer civilising behavior ’ is civil society.

And it is the pillars of the civil society, upholding the walls that keep our genocidal instincts at bay.

It is noteworthy that in societies where the concept of a civil society is not firmly established, or in those where it has broken down, that one will often find genocidal outbreaks.

So let us work together to build a strong civil society here in Australia and in the world. Civil society structures are clearly a second pillar, in addition to the UN, that may provide us with better protection against genocide.

Respect other human beings

Ultimately all our human transactions are enhanced by the degree to which we respect each other ’s human rights.

The moment you define your fellow human being as less worthy than you, as a person who does not command respect and human dignity, you are entering a dangerous slippery slope.

If you dehumanise your opponent it is easier to put him behind barbed wire and treat him harshly. It makes it easier to define him as sub-human, not worthy of your standards and take his possessions and life. And it makes it easier to justify what you have done by some patriotic or ideological excuse and try to deny that you committed a genocide on another human being.

Thus my ‘call to arms ’ today, is that each and every one of us must take personal responsibility for treating our fellow man with dignity and respect. This would provide humankind with the best protection against any future recurrence of genocide.

Lessons for Australia from the Srebrenica Tragedy

As Srebrenica demonstrates, genocide is something that can and does happen under the right conditions.

It is up to each of us, as individuals, as a nation and as a community of nations, to ensure those conditions do not arise.

To paraphrase ‘the price of freedom from genocide is eternal vigilance’.

Therefore it is so important to have commemorations such as today. I thank you the organisers for inviting me to be a part of this important event.

I congratulate you for establishing an annual commemoration event and hope that next year it will be better attended by a broader Australian community and by our political leaders in particular.

Lest we forget Srebrenica.

Thank you.

  © Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Last updated 27 July 2005 Your comments and feedback are welcome. Email us at:

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