Sonja Biserko: The Srebrenica Genocide: Serbia in Denial

“In a context of war and of human history, these crimes are unknown for their cruelty and scope”: The 2007 ruling of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) located in The Hague, finding three former high-ranking Bosnian Serb officers guilty of genocide in Srebrenica. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe and the world have been revisiting – each year for the last 17 years – the memory of the most horrific crime in the post World War II history of the continent with the hope that it will never happen again. The same was said in 1945. Still, it did happen again, and not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Srebrenica it happened a year after the Rwandan genocide. And it happened for the whole world to see.

In July 1995 in the small eastern Bosnian town 8,372 innocent Muslim men and boys, about 500 below the age of 18, were murdered in a cold-blooded massacre. It was meant to be another stepping stone to the fulfillment of the Serbian leadership dream of a Greater Serbia. Yet, it became a shocking example of human downfall and political folly. It also became the worst and last atrocity to be committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in what Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan Permanent Representative to the United Nations, already in 1992 defined as slow-motion genocide.

The Srebrenica genocide proved to be a defeat, not only for Serbia which had planned, supported and orchestrated the war, but also for the European Union and the United Nations which were heavily involved in dealing with the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Both the European Union and the United Nations have acknowledged their major responsibility for failing to act and prevent the Srebrenica genocide.

In 2009 the European Parliament declared July 11 the Day of Remembrance of Genocide in Srebrenica to be commemorated throughout the European Union. Jasushi Akashi, the UN Secretary-General Personal Representative for the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, has admitted the “collective” failure and the “collective” responsibility of the UN Security Council for not intervening to safe the people in a UN safe haven. The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has apologized for the UN policy of “amoral equivalence”. This July, the current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon during his visit to Srebrenica expressed his deep regret that the United Nation could but did not prevent the genocide. Srebrenica remains, he said, “a sacred ground” for the families of innocent victims, but also for the United Nations.

What about Serbia? The Serbian leadership has been in denial for all of these 17 years although it bears, together with the perpetrators, the primary responsibility for the massacre. Just recently, the newly elected President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić claimed: “There was no genocide in Srebrenica”. The European Commission promptly and strongly rejected the statement and warned Belgrade against any attempt to re-write history.

The new President’s statement is a step back from an inadequate but still important gesture of – at least – a partial acknowledgment of the responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. In 2010 the Serbian Parliament,  with a majority of two, adopted the resolution which condemned  – avoiding the word genocide – the crime in Srebrenica, and offered an apology to the victims’ families “because not everything was done to prevent the tragedy”.

The motion which followed the 1997 International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict was a part the Government’s effort to clear a hurdle in the process of Serbia’s approximation to the European Union. The ICJ, which lacked the major piece of evidence of Serbia’s involvement in the massacre due to the collusion between the ICTY Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and Belgrade, cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for acts of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 but proclaimed it guilty of failing to prevent the massacre in Srebrenica.

President Nikolić’s step back did not come unexpectedly. The Srebrenica genocide denial imbues politics and society in Serbia. The Parliament’s motion notwithstanding, the denial actually gained strength after the ICJ’s verdict, particularly in academia. Numerous books have been written denying the genocide and minimizing the number of victims. It is claimed that that Srebrenica was invented in order to blacken Serbia’s reputation and the Serbian people. Just fifteen minutes away from Srebrenica, a monument to the fallen Serbs was erected in the town of Bratunac, the launching ground for the final onslaught on the safe haven. There, July 12, and not July 11, is commemorated.

This manipulating narrative has been rehearsed for 17 years and – left unchallenged by the leadership – legitimized. A monumental systematic political effort would be needed to refute it and accept the truth. In the absence of it a vicious circle of lies and manipulations is perpetuated, with dangerous consequences, in particular in regard to the young generations who have neither access to the proper information nor the wish to know more about the recent past.

The ICTY, established by the United Nations in 1993 for the prosecution of those responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, issued two Srebrenica genocide rulings and found several former high ranking Bosnian Serbs officers guilty of genocide charge. Six Bosnian Serb and Serbian former brass are still on trial before the Hague Tribunal for genocide in Srebrenica.  In the 2007 judgment the ICJ found that genocide occurred in Srebrenica. A Bosnian NGO Citizens Association “Women of Srebrenica” have crisscrossed Serbia and spoken about it together with some other civil society organizations.

Still, in Serbia the process of facing and accepting the truth on Srebrenica – as well on Serbia’s attempt to redesign the former Yugoslavia by force – continues to be stagnant, reluctant at the best and stymied at the worst. As Terry Pratchett said, “the truth may be out there, but lies are inside (your) head”. Future tragedies cannot be prevented if the truth about Srebrenica and the preceding genocides and crimes against humanity is not known.

In fact, the former President Tadić’s initiative to adopt a parliamentary Srebrenica resolution triggered a heated debate in Serbia. The debate revealed the depth of Serbian frustrations and denial, and thus the refusal to face the country’s role in the recent history, especially, in regard to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The former Government and the Parliament were accused by radical nationalist elites of irresponsibility and “risky, dissident and short-minded policy”, of succumbing to “the jihad- fundamentalist Bosniak propaganda lies” and of disregard for Bosniak and Croatian crimes against Serbs.

In the course of time Serbian political, cultural and religious elites have recognized that there are “sacrifices” to be made in the process of the European Union approximation, including certain moral gestures. The parliamentary and public debate on Srebrenica have demonstrated that Serbia is still not ready to confront seriously its role in and its responsibility for genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is only after the verdicts of the Hague Tribunal become a part of the formal, official truth, that Serbia can start moving in the right direction. Until that time, all gestures by political leaders and the parliamentary motion will remain cheap political exploits.

Therefore, even though Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, two former top level Bosnian Serb war leaders, were finally – after years on the run – arrested in Serbia and transferred to The Hague Tribunal to go on trial for genocide, genocide is still denied in Serbia. True, some crimes are longer denied but they continue to be justified or relativized. The establishment in 1995 and the steady entrenchment of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, as a state within the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reinforces the culture of denial as well as Serbia’s elites’ belief that fulfilling the dream of a Greater Serbia might still be – in the end – just a matter of time.

Denial is not limited to Serbia. It is almost an invariable rule in the post-conflict narrations, including – to some extent – in the public discourse in other countries which were established in the wake of the former Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Therefore, the international community, and in particular the European Union have made its support to the countries in the region conditional on their full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal. Serbia is, of course, a special case. It waged four wars and supported and took part in the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. So far, its cooperation with the Hague Tribunal has been chiefly  calculating and the true effects of the historic, although often lacking, role of the ICTY in the introduction of a level of historical justice into the region have been largely absent in Serbia.

Although the international community has failed so far to make Serbia fulfill its moral and political responsibility toward Bosnia and Herzegovina, the region and the world, there is still a chance for international factors to get involved more effectively and to make up for the previous deficiencies. At this stage, it is important to help to support and strengthen the very fabric of the Serbian society, weakened by two decades of political, military, economic, and social and information devastation and anti-European propaganda.

There are two possible paths that the international community could and should follow in this respect. One would aim at ensuring that education, the main instrument of indoctrination, covers truthfully developments in the 1990s, including the issue of Serbia’s responsibility for the wars. The other would help to ensure that the deniers are criminalized. This path would mean that a law should be adopted, similarly to the practice in Germany and some other European countries, which would make genocide denial punishable. None of those options are feasible in the foreseeable future because, among others, a brave and determined leadership that is needed to take up this challenge is lacking in Serbia today.

17 years after the Srebrenica genocide Bosnia and Herzegovina is a wasted and dysfunctional country. The fact is a source of great concern for its people, the region and Europe. Largely, the current state is due to the constitutional straitjacket imposed on the country by the Dayton Agreements of 1995. The Agreements ended the bloodshed. At the same time they legalized the spoils of genocide in the form of a separate Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska and started the process of a slow political hemorrhage, lasting to this day and preventing the reintegration and political consolidation of the country.  Furthermore, so far the truth and reconciliation commissions have failed because of the “principle” of neutrality, equalization of victims’ and executioners’ roles and three different and irreconcilable historical narratives by three Bosnian constituent ethnicities.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, the biggest victim of the wars for the Yugoslav legacy, is thus still a hostage to the unfinished regional stabilization process and to Serbia’s continuous territorial aspirations. Until Belgrade’s claims have been definitely rebutted and the historical truth has prevailed, Bosnia and Herzegovina will remain the hostage and the regional stability will be under constant threat. In reaching the historical truth, the causes for the breakdown of Yugoslavia should be pinpointed, the role of Serbian elites in the war planning and the wars explained and all perpetrators of crimes against humanity, and especially the perpetrators and sponsors of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, brought to justice. While some of the planners of the war continue to exert a significant impact on the decision-making on the future of Serbia, it is difficult to expect the necessary fundamental change in Belgrade’s attitudes and – consequently – a badly needed consolidation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This year again the victims’ families, friends and all peace-loving people in the region, Europe and the world paid honor to the slain in Srebrenica. The commemoration ceremony was closed to political speeches so as to stop using the tragedy for political gains. Only spiritual leaders addressed thousands of grieving people, including the leading guest, the Senior Rabbi Arthur Schneier from New York, founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation.

Srebrenica remains a symbol of human evil but also of the international community’s shocking lack of will to prevent it. The notions of political neutrality and relativization of the crimes propagated by some international actors in the aftermath of the war added salt to the open wound, deepening the schisms between different ethnicities and countries and deferring their meeting with the past.

In his statement on the 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide President Obama expressed the hope that “Srebrenica’s future, and that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will not be held back by its painful recent history”. He also stressed his desire for “a continued reconciliation and peaceful coexistence for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina…, because achieving that will be the ultimate repudiation of the evil that started the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere in the region and that led to the Srebrenica genocide”.

President Obama’s hope and desire, however well-meaning, regrettably do not reflect the grim reality in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Serbia’s continuous denial and obstruction of the neighboring country’s state consolidation. It is to be hoped that the United States will restart its efforts, in concert with the European Union, to bring pressure to bear upon the leaderships in the region in order to reverse the current troubling trends.

Since the Berlin Congress in 1878, the Balkan peoples have traversed a dramatic path of national emancipation. Some of them, like the Bosniaks, have been often hampered in their aspirations to assert their national identity. Eventually, they succeeded in doing so in the post World War II Yugoslavia, and confirmed it, once again, in the war in the 1990s, albeit at a terrifying cost.

There have always been outside attempts to destroy physically some peoples, to eradicate them. But the people’s urge for freedom and an identity of their own cannot be denied or suppressed. That may be the only hopeful thing we have learned so far from the genocide in Srebrenica.

Sonja Biserko, founder and president, Helsinki Human Rights Committee in Serbia, political columnist, author and editor, former Yugoslav diplomat


1 Comment

Filed under Genocide, ICJ, ICTY, Srebrenica

One response to “Sonja Biserko: The Srebrenica Genocide: Serbia in Denial

  1. I have spent some time in Bosnia-Hercegovina since marrying a former resident and observed that people there are tribal. The atrocities of the war were of the kind sometimes seen in tribal wars. The remedy, I believe, is to instil the idea of a common set of rules that govern everybody regardless of tribe ( a strategy employed by former president Tito). I am referring to a true theory of human rights that is clearly universal by virtue of its rational integrity. A theory that results from an objective analysis of what fundamental rights go with being a person. I am not referring to the UN declaration of rights because it contains rights invented by idealists trying to design societies.

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