Yahel Vilan, the Israeli ambassador to Serbia, recently told the Russian State-owned news agency Sputnik that applying the term “genocide” to the July 1995 mass killings of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia presented a distorted picture of the events in question. Vilan declared explicitly that, in his view, “Srebrenica should not be called genocide.”

In fact, the Srebrenica massacre at the hands — or perhaps better, at the guns — of Bosnian Serb ultranationalist paramilitary thugs has been recognized as a genocide by a succession of trial panels and appellate chambers of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as well as by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Vilan’s statements are only the latest in a string of rejections of the term “genocide” for the events at Srebrenica, as the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) prepares to vote in the coming weeks on a resolution to designate July 11, the day the massacre began, as the “International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica.” The resolution, which also condemns any denial of the Srebrenica Genocide, is being proposed by Germany and Rwanda, two countries that have genocide seared into their consciousness, and it has the support of the United States, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Jordan, and New Zealand among a wide range of U.N. member States.

Adopting such a resolution would be fully in keeping with the official international days of remembrance designated by the General Assembly for the Holocaust (January 27) and the 1994 Rwandan genocide (April 7), as well as the victims of slavery (March 25), torture (June 26), terrorism (August 21), acts of violence based on religion or belief (August 22), and genocides generally (December 9). The fact that the United Nations has not yet done so for the dead of Srebrenica is disgraceful in and of itself.

Vilan, perhaps in an effort to enhance Serbia’s support for the far-right policies of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, has now joined the inglorious ranks of Srebrenica Genocide deniers, and has become part of – or allowed himself to become part of – a concerted campaign to derail and sabotage the U.N. resolution. It must not be allowed to succeed.

A brief review of the relevant facts on Srebrenica seems to be in order once again. The Srebrenica killings were the most extreme manifestation of the “ethnic cleansing” policy of Bosnian Serbs and the driving force behind them, the late Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević, during the 1990s wars that followed the splintering of the former Yugoslavia. Their aim: the hegemonistic goal of a pan-Serbian State referred to more recently as “Srpski svet” (Serbian World), by ridding the predominantly Serb-populated areas of Bosnia of Bosniaks and Croats and eventually incorporating these territories into what was then the Yugoslav Socialist Federal Republic of Serbia.

Massacres in a U.N. `Safe Area’

On April 16, 1993, in the midst of the brutal war that followed Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 1992 declaration of independence from the then-crumbling Yugoslavia, the U.N. Security Council had designated Srebrenica and its surroundings “as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act.”

Beginning on July 11, 1995, after a Dutch U.N. peacekeeping battalion had shamefully handed Srebrenica and its inhabitants over to the control of the aforementioned Bosnian Serb forces who styled themselves as Chetniks — the term used for nationalist Serbian guerrilla forces during World War II — under the command of General Ratko Mladić, the Chetniks ruthlessly and systematically killed virtually all Bosniak men and boys over the age of 12. They also raped Bosniak women, and forcibly deported about 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and the elderly. Ten years later, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called what had occurred at Srebrenica “a terrible crime – the worst on European soil since the Second World War.” (Annan made this statement in July of 2005, 17 years before Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine.)

Since then, six Bosnian Serbs have been convicted of genocide by the ICTY in connection with the Srebrenica massacre. They include Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, then-president of Republika Srpska, the majority-Serb part of Bosnia that was later cemented as one of two “entities” in the Dayton Peace Agreement that ultimately ended the war. We will never know whether Milošević, who had been indicted for genocide as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity, would have been convicted, since he died in his cell at The Hague of an apparent heart attack before a verdict was issued in his trial before the ICTY.

In its landmark February 2007 judgment in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, the ICJ 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.”

And still, as I wrote almost four years ago on this platform, a host of Srebrenica Genocide deniers, now including Vilan, emulate ostriches and blatantly ignore the very existence of the ICTY and ICJ judgments in a desperate effort to reject the genocide label. Their statements essentially support revisionist histories that glorify the perpetrators of the Srebrenica atrocities such as Mladić who are held out as role models throughout Republika Srpska and in Serbia.

Foremost among these deniers is Milorad Dodik, the strongman of Republika Srpska, who has been sanctioned numerous times by the U.S. government for corruption and for threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In recent years, he has called the Srebrenica Genocide “a fabricated myth,” and has said, “Genocide did not happen there [in Srebrenica], we all know that here in Republika Srpska.” Less than two weeks ago, on April 18, after telling a crowd in the Republika Srpska capital of Banja Luka that Srebrenica was “a mistake” and “a huge crime,” he defiantly declared, “But it wasn’t genocide.”

Such statements by Dodik are not only blatantly false but also hypocritical in the extreme. In a July 2008 interview, he said unequivocally that “I know perfectly well what happened: genocide happened in Srebrenica. That was the ruling of the Hague tribunal and this is an undeniable legal fact.”

Citing Israeli Academics and Activists

His genocide denials and others often seize on statements or writings of Israeli academics or activists such as Gideon Greif and Efraim Zuroff for support. Greif, for example, is a controversial Israeli academic with a record of exaggerated pro-Serb writings who chaired a self-styled Internal Commission of Inquiry on Srebrenica at Dodik’s behest. When Greif and his commission issued a utterly spurious 1,106-page-long report in 2021 denying categorically that what occurred at Srebrenica was a genocide, I debunked the report’s shameless “manipulation of the truth” and dismissed it as “a document that deserves to be consigned to the dustbin of history, used only to demonstrate the moral failing of individuals — the proverbial ‘useful idiots,’ as it were — who engage in genocide denial and distortion.”

To give only one example of the fallacious nature of what is commonly referred to as the Greif Report, one of the reasons it sets forth explicitly as to why Srebrenica should not be deemed a genocide (at pp. 66 and 85) is that the number of Bosniaks killed there – about 8,000 – was supposedly not sufficiently large to constitute a genocide.

But, as Nehemiah Robinson, the director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress who to this day is recognized as one of the leading authorities on the Genocide Convention, wrote in his 1960 The Genocide Convention: A Commentary (at p. 63), the scale of a possible genocide is not determinative. According to Robinson, “the intent to destroy a multitude of persons of the same group because of their belonging to this group, must be classified as genocide even if these persons constitute only part of a group either within a country or within a region or within a single community, provided the number is substantial….It will be up to the courts to decide in each case whether the number was sufficiently large.”

As noted above, contrary to the assertions in the Greif Report, the various ICTY panels and the ICJ have held that the number of Bosniaks murdered at Srebrenica was, in Robinson’s words, “sufficiently large” to constitute a genocide. Thus, the ICTY appellate panel found in Prosecutor v. Zdravko Tolimir that “the killing of at least 5,749 Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica” constituted a genocidal actus reus, perpetrated with the requisite genocidal intent. And in Prosecutor v. Ratko Mladić, the ICTY trial chamber held that “that in determining the substantiality of the group, numerical size of the part in absolute terms is one factor among many,” others being the “numerical size of the part in relation to the overall size of the group; the prominence of the part of the group within the larger whole and whether it is emblematic of the overall group or essential to its survival; the area of the perpetrators’ activity and control; and the perpetrators’ potential reach.”

Nevertheless, in what appears to be a last-ditch attempt to continue denying that the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide in the face of the proposed U.N. General Assembly resolution, the Republika Srpska parliament has now formally adopted the widely discredited Greif Report. If that’s the best they can come up with, they’re whistling past any number of graveyards.

Ignoring Judicial Rulings

Zuroff is still another high-profile Srebrenica Genocide denier. The director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office, he opposed the adoption of the U.N. resolution on the Srebrenica Genocide in a Jerusalem Post op-ed on the grounds that “anyone acquainted with that event, as well as with the original definition of ‘genocide’ knows very well that the crime committed by the Serbian troops does not fit the definition of genocide.”

After I challenged Zuroff’s contention in The Times of Israel, pointing out that he totally ignored the ICJ holding that “the acts committed at Srebrenica” constituted genocide as well as the numerous ICTY decisions that reached the same conclusion, Zuroff published a second article, this time in The Times of Israel, ostensibly to refute my criticisms of his position. Only he again studiously failed (or refused) to address the numerous judicial decisions.

The only authority Zuroff cites is Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer who, in Zuroff’s words, “has insisted for years that what happened in Srebrenica does not qualify as a case of genocide.” According to Zuroff, if the Srebrenica killings were to be classified as a case of genocide, “the term would be completely emptied of its current gravitas and significance, and lose whatever impact it still has to date.”

I respect Professor Bauer, who is an old and dear friend, tremendously, but once the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and entered into force 25 months later, its interpretation – and the determination of what is and what is not genocide – became a matter for the courts far more than for historians. And the ICTY made its determinations based on the examination of extensive evidence and witness testimony.

What Zuroff refuses to countenance is that genocide is not an abstract concept subject to intellectual or philosophical sophistry. On the contrary, it is a legal term by now firmly enshrined in international law. As defined in the Genocide Convention, as well as in the statute of the ICTY, genocide is any of a number of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” These acts include “killing members of the group” and “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.”

The ICTY tribunals as well as the ICJ have consistently held that such acts occurred and that the Srebrenica slaughter constituted genocide as a matter of law. In Prosecutor v. Ratko Mladić, for example, the ICTY trial chamber specifically took into account “the murder of many thousands of Bosnian-Muslim males, the destruction of political or religious monuments and homes, and the forcible transfer of Bosnian-Muslim women, children and the elderly.”

I write as a law professor who teaches about the law of genocide at Cornell Law School and Columbia Law School. Zuroff is most certainly entitled to disagree with me, but for him to not even acknowledge the legal and jurisprudential realities surrounding Srebrenica strikes me as intellectually dishonest.

A personal note: I fully understand why Dodik and others in Republika Srpska would want to enlist malleable Israelis to provide them with purported “Jewish” cover for their Srebrenica Genocide denial. What I find particularly offensive, however, is that the likes of Greif, Zuroff, and now Vilan are willing to do so, apparently with no questions asked. Even abject subservience and sycophancy should have some limits.

In short, the verbal emanations of the different Srebrenica Genocide deniers should be dismissed as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” – or at least, nothing that should even remotely cause the U.N. General Assembly to hesitate adopting the proposed Srebrenica resolution. It is imperative for the sake of both history and the rule of law to afford the victims and survivors of the Srebrenica horrors the dignity of having the crime perpetrated against them at long last formally recognized by the international community for what it was.

IMAGE: Bosnian Muslims view the memorial wall during a mass burial of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, at the memorial cemetery in the village of Potocari, near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, on July 11, 2022. The ceremony marked the collective burial, on the 27th anniversary, of 50 newly identified bodies. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)