Wicker: Peace in the Balkans Remains Vital to U.S. Interests

Miss. Senator Part of U.S. Delegation to Honor Srebrenica Victims

July 20, 2015

The tragic events of July 11, 1995, had repercussions that were felt around the world. The slaughter of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica – which had previously been designated a United Nations “safe area” in Bosnia and Herzegovina – was one of the Balkan War’s final breaking points.

Just over a month later, 5,000 troops from 15 nations carried out Operation Deliberate Force, a NATO-led air campaign designed to force a resolution to the conflict. Many Mississippians had a role in peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the years that followed. Members of the National Guard’s 155th Infantry Battalion who were deployed there in 2001 represented more than 40 communities in our state.

Earlier this month, I was part of an official U.S. delegation led by former President Bill Clinton to participate in Srebrenica’s 20th anniversary ceremony. This small delegation also consisted of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In Congress, I currently serve as co-chair of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which oversees security, human rights, and conflict prevention in Europe. As Europe’s worst massacre since the Holocaust, Srebrenica remains a powerful reminder of how regional instability and ethnic hatred can escalate in horrific ways.

Rising Threat of Russian Aggression

Americans have a practical stake in the future of the Balkans and the power of freedom and democracy there. The area has long been a hot spot for violence, as was witnessed during both World War I and World War II. Now, Russia seems intent on expanding its influence in the region. If another outbreak of extremism were to occur, Americans would again be called on to defend our national security and economic interests.

Emotions are still raw, and ethnicity remains a source of deep division, but reconciliation continues in significant ways. International courts have clearly labeled the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide, and some of its perpetrators have been imprisoned for their crimes. Bosnia and Herzegovina, once home to suffering and violence, is now seeking membership in the European Union.

Truly honoring the victims of Srebrenica means recommitting to the region’s future success. We owe it to the victims’ families, who still grieve for their loved ones. We owe it to the willpower of U.S. leaders like President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who helped facilitate the peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, that brought a formal end to the war. We owe it to the Americans whose military service paved the way for peace.

Two Decades of Progress Helped Along by Americans

We are faced with crises around the world, but letting history repeat itself should not be one of them. There will no doubt be roadblocks to a sustainable peace in the Balkans. The true test of reconciliation will be whether there is a willingness to rise above these obstacles.

For example, the decision of a few protesters to throw rocks at the Serbian prime minister should not eclipse the respect shown by thousands in attendance at Srebrenica’s anniversary ceremony. Likewise, Russia’s veto earlier this month of a UN Security Council resolution calling the massacre a “genocide” does not change the conclusion of multiple international courts, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. There is a strong international consensus for accountability when innocent lives are taken because of ethnicity or religion. This means facing history’s hard truths rather than trying to rewrite them.

Srebrenica is one of these hard truths, but it is also a story of progress helped along by Americans. Recognizing the courage and sacrifices that have been made on behalf of unity and freedom is important to moving forward. Peace has been maintained in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 20 years. We all have an interest in seeing it continue.