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Public Statements

Marking Twenty Years Since the Start of the Bosnian Conflict

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, this month marks 20 years since the start of the tragic conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In remembrance, 11,541 red chairs lined the main street of Sarajevo during the first week of April, one for every man, woman and child killed in the beautiful Bosnian capital of Sarajevo when it was a city under siege by militant Serb forces in the surrounding suburbs and hillsides.

Like the memorial in Srebrenica commemorating the genocide three years later in which 8,000 people, mostly men and boys, were slaughtered by forces under the same overall command, the chairs were a sober reminder of how horrific and senseless the violence in Bosnia truly was. They are also a reminder of the international community's complicity in these crimes by its own inaction, when it had the means to intervene and save lives.

The result of the delayed response to aggression against Bosnia plagues the people of that country today. The realities of the conflict, including the ethnic cleansing, were accommodated by compromises in the Dayton Agreement needed to restore peace. While necessary then, today these compromises have allowed political leaders like Milorad Dodik in the entity of Republika Srpska to block at will progress on reforms needed for the county's stability, prosperity and integration. While I welcome positive developments which have taken place in Bosnia in recent months, above all the formation of a new government, it remains disappointing that movement forward is so painfully slow. The people of Bosnia, regardless of their ethnicity, certainly deserve better.

Today those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide continue to be prosecuted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, located in The Hague, or in the war crimes courts of the countries concerned. This effort is important and warrants international support until the last crime is prosecuted.

Justice alone, however, cannot bring closure to Bosnia's war victims. That is why I introduced a few weeks ago H.R. 4344, which among other actions supports the work of the International Commission for Missing Persons in locating and identifying persons missing as a result of conflicts and supporting the investigation of genocide and mass atrocities. It is also why I now repeat my call made last year for a permanent memorial to be established at the site of the Omarska concentration camp in northeastern Bosnia, so that the survivors of the crimes associated with the ethnic cleansing of that region of the country may also have a place to remember those lost. Such memorials also serve as bulwarks against forces which try to excuse, minimize and even deny the crimes that took place.

As Chairman or Co-Chairman of the Helsinki Commission for most of the 20 years since the Bosnian conflict erupted, I have chaired dozens of hearings and introduced numerous pieces of legislation which have helped to document the atrocities, shape policy responses, and assist in post-conflict recovery. I have also visited the country on numerous occasions. I can assure the people of Bosnia that I and my colleagues on the Helsinki Commission will continue to work for their human rights and the democratic, prosperous future they deserve.

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