Skip to main content

ILR Fellowship in Bosnia: Law & the Prevention of Future Genocide

February 27, 2023

The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.


Trevor Stankiewicz L’23

As I stood in the middle of the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide, the gravestones seemed endless to me. Looking ahead or behind, left or right, there was row after row after row of white markers, each bearing a different name, a different birth year, but the same year of death: 1995.

In July of 1995, 8,372 people, mostly Bosniak Muslim men and boys, were ruthlessly killed in Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska. The units were commanded by Ratko Mladić, a colonel-general during the Bosnian War who was later found guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The massacre had occurred even though the United Nations had declared Srebrenica a safe zone two years earlier: The United Nations Protection Force failed to stop the attack of the Bosnian Serb Army, and Srebrenica was overrun. Nearly 30 years later, the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial pays tribute to the victims. It also serves as a painful reminder of the failure of international systems to fulfill their promise following the Holocaust: “Never again.”

This past summer, I was awarded an International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship from Penn Carey Law to analyze the role of law in the prevention of future genocide. Specifically, I wanted to explore the relationship between propaganda and incitement, as well as potential standards for memorialization following a genocide determination. I believe that there is power in the written word and in stories. And although too often, this power is used to promote hatred and dehumanization, it can also illuminate our future by using stories of the past. With this in mind, I traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina in August 2022 to learn and listen.

Walking the streets of the old town of Sarajevo, I first saw a sign for the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992–1995. Founded in July 2016, the museum is organized and maintained by victims who survived the war. Although the museum does include information about the political realities of the war, much of the emphasis is on individual testimonials paired with photos and personal items. I was told that this was purposefully done as an attempt to break through the immensity and dry statistics of the tragedy, to remind the visitors that these atrocities happened to real people—normal people, who had friends and family and hobbies and passions, who had their lives irrevocably changed through violence, persecution, and loss.

Toward the end of the museum, in the second to last room, there is a man’s sweater. The testimonial accompanying it was written by the mother of the sweater’s owner. She shared that her son and her husband had been taken to one of the concentration camps near her village during the war. She begged for days before she was finally allowed to see them. She brought them both a new set of clothes, giving her son his favorite tracksuit and receiving this sweater from him as he changed. That was the last time she would see either of them.

For almost three decades, the woman has searched the photos of mass graves, looking for a body wearing the tracksuit she had given her son. Her son has still not been identified. She stated that at nearly 80 years old, she has lost hope that he will be buried before she is. So, she has given the sweater to the museum—the sweater that she had kept for all of these years because it still smells like her son—in hopes that it will keep his memory alive for others as it has done for her.

Before leaving the museum, I returned to an earlier room. It was covered in sticky notes from visitors to the museum, people from all around the world. They had plastered their thoughts to the walls: phrases like “never forget,” “no more war,” and “peace and respect for everyone.” There were specific wishes for Ukraine, for Syria, for Myanmar, for Palestine. There were also expressions of apology and sadness and frustration. It was clear that the stories of the museum had resonated with the visitors. They certainly have with me.

Walking outside of the museum and returning to my apartment, I crossed the bridge on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, an event often cited as the catalyst for World War I, and I wondered how much tragedy one place can hold.

Visiting the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial was the last thing I did on my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the past seven years, I have worked on international human rights issues, focusing on genocides. I have conducted interviews and gathered testimonials. I have written reports and plays to raise awareness.

I chose to attend law school because I wanted to move away from simply documenting tragedies and move instead toward trying to prevent them. Standing in the middle of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, I realized that I had been wrong to separate those two ideas. The mistakes of the past will continue to affect the future if they are not honored.

As I begin my final year of law school, I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to conduct this research, and I will continue to investigate the role of law in the prevention of future genocides. There is undoubtedly power in what is said and written. I believe it is possible to use that power to help prevent atrocities from occurring; that it is possible to highlight the mistakes of our past through education and advocacy; that it is possible to hold companies that foster hate speech against marginalized and vulnerable groups responsible for their actions; that it is possible to fulfill the promise of nearly 80 years ago and finally say, truthfully: “Never again.”