(Editor’s Note: To mark today’s 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia, Just Security is publishing two articles. In addition to this piece by Menachem Z. Rosensaft on denial of the Srebrenica Genocide, Margaret deGuzman considers whether racist police brutality in the United States could be characterized as an international atrocity crime.)
Imagine the international outrage if murals of Adolf Hitler were to be prominently displayed throughout Germany, or if a Berlin student dormitory were to be named after Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the systematic annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
Imagine further the across-the-board condemnation of any German government delusional enough to claim as a matter of policy that the Holocaust was not a genocide, and that the Jews brought their mass slaughter upon themselves.
Precisely this type of scenario has been playing itself out with regard to the genocide perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs 25 years ago against Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims – in and around the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
During the brutally fought 1992-95 Bosnian War, the paramilitary forces of the Bosnian Serb breakaway proto-state known as Republika Srpska, with the support of the neighboring Serbian government, engaged in a savage campaign to expel non-Serbs from the predominantly ethnic Serb part of Bosnia. In 1993, the United Nations Security Council designated “Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act.” This “safe area,” where thousands of Bosniaks sought refuge, was under U.N. protection.
Over the course of several days beginning on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladić murdered approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys between the ages of 12 and 77 from the Srebrenica enclave, in what U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan later called “a terrible crime – the worst on European soil since the Second World War.” Bosnian Serb troops also forcibly expelled around 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly men from Srebrenica.
The 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention provides that killing members of “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part,” that group “as such” constitutes the crime of genocide under international law.
To date, six Bosnian Serbs, including Mladić and the erstwhile Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić, have been convicted of genocide by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in connection with the Srebrenica killings. In 2007, the International Court of Justice held that “the acts committed at Srebrenica … were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such; and accordingly that these were acts of genocide.”
“Some Do Not Wish To Know”
Sadly, however, as Dunja Mijatović, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, has pointed out, “Many people in Europe and the world do not know about the genocide and some do not wish to know. Some even deny it.”
Indeed, Bosnian Serbs and their acolytes have spent the past quarter of a century desperately trying to persuade the world that what happened at Srebrenica was not a genocide. The Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center recently issued a report on Srebrenica genocide denial that documents the revisionist initiatives by politicians and pseudo-academics to distort history. The efforts range from attempts to dispute the death toll to blaming the victims for the slaughter by claiming that it was a reaction to Bosniak provocations.
In the course of 2019, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, called the Srebrenica genocide a “fabricated myth,” and said that Bosnian Muslims “did not have a myth, so they decided to construct one around Srebrenica.” Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin declared that, “the Serbian people survived genocide rather than committed it.” And Željka Cvijanović, the president of Republika Srpska, which emerged as one of the constituent entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina following the November 1995 Dayton Accords, has pointedly suggested that the killing of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica was retaliation for prior anti-Serb “war crimes against Serbs” purportedly committed by Bosnian Muslim forces.
These Srebrenica genocide deniers are far from alone. Five years ago, on July 8, 2015, Russia vetoed a British-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Srebrenica massacre as a “crime of genocide.” Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the U.N., disparaged the proposed resolution as “not constructive, confrontational and politically motivated.”
In June 2015, Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, lent invaluable support to the Serb and Russian positions when he told the Belgrade-based newspaper Politika that he did not believe that what happened at Srebrenica “fit the description or definition of genocide and I think that the decision to call this genocide was adopted for political reasons.”
In a separate interview on Russian-sponsored Sputnik Serbia radio, Zuroff said, “It is necessary to be very careful while using the concept of ‘genocide.’ I do not deny that the Serbian forces killed Muslims in Srebrenica, this should not have happened, and those responsible must be brought to justice. But there was no genocide in Srebrenica since the Serbs initially released women and children. And then the process of politicization of the tragedy began.”
“A Legal Fact”
Churkin, Zuroff, and all the other Srebrenica genocide deniers are wrong as a matter of law. As Ambassador Peter Wilson, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative at the U.N., declared following Churkin’s 2015 veto, “that genocide occurred at Srebrenica … is a legal fact, not a political judgment.”
Such historical rejectionism flies in the face of a succession of judicial holdings that set forth in detail that the killing of the Bosniak men and boys from the Srebrenica enclave, coupled with the forced deportation of Bosniak women, children and elderly men, evidenced the requisite intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslim presence in eastern Bosnia so as to constitute genocide. In its judgment convicting Karadžić of genocide, the ICTY Trial Chamber wrote that the “only reasonable inference” to be drawn from the killing of the Bosniak men and boys of Srebrenica “is that members of the Bosnian Serb Forces orchestrating this operation intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslims as such.”
It gets worse. The perpetrators of the Srebrenica genocide are lionized in present-day Republika Srpska. Enormous murals of Mladić have become shrines for Bosnian Serbs, and a student dormitory was named with great fanfare after Karadžić. Consider the contrast now to the United States, where Confederate statues are coming down in recognition of the hatred they represent.
Speaking at the site of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald in Germany, President Barack Obama called denial of the Holocaust “baseless, ignorant and hateful.” “It is beyond question,” Pope Benedict XVI declared, “that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.”
Denial of the Srebrenica genocide is equally “baseless, ignorant and hateful.” Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Mijatović has called for July 11 to be declared an official Remembrance Day of the Srebrenica genocide. The U.N., the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and other international bodies should follow suit and mark July 11 with the same reverence accorded to Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Like Holocaust denial, denial of the Srebrenica genocide cannot be allowed to be portrayed as a legitimate intellectual position. Numerous countries, Germany foremost among them, have criminalized Holocaust denial. At the very least, those who deny the Srebrenica genocide and glorify its perpetrators need to be exposed, publicly condemned, and ostracized. The victims of Srebrenica and their families deserve no less.
As a moral imperative, the international community must once and for all denounce Srebrenica genocide denial, in Pope Benedict’s words, as “intolerable and altogether unacceptable.”