Denial of Genocide – on the possibility of normalising relations in the region

By: Sonja Biserko and Edina Becirevic

Denial of Genocide - on the possibility of normalising relations in the regionThere is a growing consensus that the situation in Serbia is becoming increasingly radicalised, and that the violence displayed by clerical-fascist organisations derives equally from political manipulation and from the many years of nationalist indoctrination that came to infect all layers of Serbian society. Recent events show that neither ‘generational change’ nor the downfall of Milošević’s regime has resulted in any significant progress in Serbian society’s liberalisation. The war propaganda of the 1980s and 1990s under which Serbian youth grew up has been replaced by an all-embracing culture based on denial of the role played by Serbia in the wars in former Yugoslavia. After Milošević’s fall, the international community’s officials chose to ignore numerous warnings voiced in the media and by independent analysts that any delay in facing up to a past during which Serbia waged four wars would be conducive to the growth of fascism.

The chance to confront the past which Serbia had after surrendering Slobodan Milošević was thus squandered, as a result of short-term political calculations on the part of both Belgrade and the international community, which thus far remains content with Serbia’s formal cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, in effect with a staggered delivery of those indicted by it. Serbia’s minimal cooperation in the opening of its archives has also been tolerated rather than being treated as an obstacle to the country’s integration into the European Union.

Unwillingness to confront the truth

One can say that after fifteen years of the Tribunal’s work, the picture of Serbia’s involvement in the past wars has been practically completed. Although the Hague Tribunal was set up to try individuals, by establishing also the historical context the verdicts issued by the court speak clearly also of Serbia’s responsibility for the four wars. During the current trial of Momčilo Perišić, the prosecution has successfully proved the existence of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’, and it is expected that Radovan Karadžić’s trial will prove also genocide against Bosniaks, beginning with 1992. These two trials could make up for what the Tribunal lost due to the incomplete proceedings against Slobodan Milošević. The Hague trials and verdicts have not been properly presented to the Serbian public, however. Thus the verdict against the Six [Milan Milutinović, Nikola Šainović, Dragoljub Ojdanić, Nebojša Pavković, Vladimir Lazarević and Sreten Lukić], which clearly showed that the Serbian army and police operated in Kosovo during 1998 and 1999, was described as anti-Serb and as such gained great media attention. There is no mechanism that would force Serbia officially to recognise the ICTY’s verdicts.

Denial of Genocide - on the possibility of normalising relations in the regionThe last chance to utilize the international legal system in order to force Serbia to confront the truth about the past was missed on 27 February 2007, when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) found Serbia guilty only of ‘non-prevention’ of genocide at Srebrenica. The Serbian public interpreted this as proof that Serbia was not involved in the war against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following the ICJ’s verdict, denial acquired a new dimension. The part of Serbian society that likes to call itself liberal, and that had previously appeared ready to discuss the Serbian state’s responsibility for the war against Bosnia-Herzegovina, found in the ICJ’s verdict an alibi for denying the fact of genocide. Denial is present most strongly in political discourse, in the media, in the sphere of law, and in the educational system.

Denial of the Srebrenica genocide takes many forms. The methods range from the brutal to the deceitful. Open deniers, such as Srđa Trifković, refer most often to the video of a Skorpion unit executing six Bosniak youths. In their interpretation, the video is a manipulation that does not in itself prove that genocide took place in Srebrenica, nor that seven or eight or ten thousand people were killed there. Trifković insists that there is no evidence that the Skorpion unit was under the command of the Serbian interior ministry. He further insists that the video from Srebrenica was produced with a specific political task: to inflict a collective responsibility upon the Serbian people; to use the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica to ‘de-Nazify’, i.e. denationalise, Serbia; and to achieve a revision of the Dayton accords that would abolish Republika Srpska and create a centralised and unified Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to Trifković, the aim is retroactively to justify Western policy.

Trifković is followed by many other ‘scholars’ who deny the genocide. Darko Trifunović, who teaches at the Faculty of Security, has publicised stories about ‘Islamic terrorism in Bosnia-Herzegovina’, which he uses in order to deny the validity of the verdict passed by the ICJ. Trifunović also denies the validity of the verdict upon General Krstić, and insists that fewer than one hundred men were actually executed at Srebrenica.

Searching for truth

The line of denial propagated by Emil Vlajki has found a warm reception among Serbian deniers. In his text ‘Srebrenica as a metaphor’, Vlajki writes that ‘the evidence for the alleged massacre was and remains inadequate’, but that the propaganda conducted by the US ‘military-political complex’ has nevertheless ‘done its work’, so that ‘Srebrenica has become one of the greatest of twentieth-century myths’, in which ‘the Serbs are blamed for the worst massacre committed in Europe since the time of Hitler’. Vlajki blames the propaganda of the US ‘military-political complex’ also for the fact that Srebrenica has entered the annals of international institutions, video games, school textbooks and anthologies dealing with genocide across the world. What pains him most is that the ‘Srebrenica myth’ has become so widely accepted that ‘people in the West have acquired a Pavlovian reflex: as soon as they hear the word Serb, they think of Srebrenica, and vice versa.’

Milivoje Ivanišević, a publicist and ‘researcher’ into war crimes in Bosnia, likewise insists in his book Traganje za istinom [Search for Truth], which he presented in 2008 at the University of Niš law faculty, that no genocide occurred in Srebrenica: ‘Ever since 11 July 1995, when the Serbs made a forced return to Srebrenica, in return for their own forced expulsion from there, stories started to circulate about a large number of Muslims, above all innocent Muslim civilians, old people, women and children, killed there. The numbers multiplied as time went by and reached such proportions that today not only the Hague tribunal and the Muslim religious and secular authorities speak of genocide, which is to be expected and perhaps logical, but so too do foreign state officials.’

Ivanišević accuses many NGOs, especially those in Sarajevo and Belgrade, of insisting on the theme of genocide in order to burden the Serbs with irrational guilt. ‘As if the imposed cult of Srebrenica were still weighing upon our conscience, becoming a metaphor for an unimaginable and indeed genocidal crime committed by Serbs against the innocent inhabitants of this small town lost in the Bosnian gorges and wilderness’, writes Ivanišević. Closer analysis of the structure of his sentence implies that we can deny only what we know, not what we do not know.

The legal sphere

That the ICJ verdict provides a framework beyond which Serbia will not go is reflected in trials before our national courts, which are unanimous in their view that Serbia and its army were not engaged in Bosnia. The most striking case is that of the Skorpions. The verdict was delivered in April 2007, a mere month after the one passed by the ICJ. The presiding judge, Gordana Božilović-Petrović, argued in her extensive exposition that the Skorpions had nothing to do with the Serbian state at that time. According to the verdict, the Skorpions were formed by the Oil Industry of the former Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK), and as a unit came under the command of the RSK army only in 1993. It became part of the reserve forces of the Serbian ministry of the interior in 1996, together with the JSO [special operations unit], and it was only in 1999 that it came under the control of the Serbian interior ministry. According to this interpretation, in the summer of 1995, when the six from Srebrenica were killed, the Skorpions were helping the forces of the Republika Srpska, and were subject to them. Judge Božilović-Petrović did not hesitate to describe the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a ‘civil war’.

The most recent verdict against Ilija Jurišić in the case of the Tuzla convoy, and the insistence on investigating the Dobrovoljačka Street case in Sarajevo [both cases involve Bosnian defenders’ skirmishes with the JNA], show that the Serbian legal system has taken a new step in pursuit of the denial programme. The argument that the war in Bosnia was a ‘civil war’ is reinforced by finding its cause in the ‘Muslim-Croat formations’ which, by ‘refusing to disband peacefully’, themselves became responsible for the subsequent crimes committed by Serb ‘paramilitary formations’ in revenge.

A further means to divert attention from Serbia’s role in the wars waged in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s has been the pressure for rehabilitation of those involved in the Chetnik movement. The current intensive search for Draža Mihailović’s grave has been used by the Serb elite to circulate in the media the argument that the Serb people has not yet got over ‘the traumas of World War I and the genocide in World War II’. Thus the Serb nationalists, defending their own role in the recent wars, insist that ‘it is impossible to understand the terrible inter-ethnic wars of 1991-95 in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina without focussing on that experience and the fears that derive from it’ (Politika, 6 February 2009).

That there is only a short step from the Serb nationalists’ media campaigns to concrete actions is shown by the adoption of a law on equalisation of rights of Partisans and Chetniks. This law opened the possibility that processes of rehabilitation would crowd not only the media space but also the courts. In February 2009 the Belgrade district court received a demand for the rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović. Slobodan Milanović has already been rehabilitated, and the process for the rehabilitation of Milan Nedić, who has been placed among the one hundred greatest Serbs in history, is in progress. Dragiša Cvetković, who signed the Tripartite Pact, was recently rehabilitated by a court in Niš.

The programme of the Serbian elite

One of the main theses marketed by the Serbian elite headed by Dobrica Ćosić is that the establishment of the two Yugoslavias was a calamity for the Serb people. They talk of historical failure, of wasted historical time, of the lost possibility to create instead a Great Serbia, which they allege was offered to Nikola Pašić by the Treaty of London. They ascribe at the same time the argument about a de facto establishment of Great Serbia and about Serb hegemony to ‘the militant propaganda of Croat nationalism’, which felt ‘threatened’ by Serb domination over the common or proximate geographical and political space.

Rather than seriously examining and analysing the causes of Yugoslavia’s break-up, they strive to prove instead that responsibility for it lies with the ‘secessionist’ republics of Slovenia and Croatia, and after them with the international community (USA, Vatican, Germany and Austria). They furthermore deny that Belgrade intended to establish a Great Serbia.

In his article ‘Naši porazi nisu konačni’ [Our defeats are not final], published in NIN in October 2008, Ćosić, pressed by the weight of evidence, refers also to Serb criminal responsibility. But the true depth of the sincerity of his appeal to face up to this is shown by the fact that in the same article he also boasts that ‘the Serbs have also won some historic victories: Republika Srpska’.

In his article ‘Demokratske laži o bosanskom ratu’ [Democratic lies about the Bosnian war], published in Politika, Ćosić pillories the West: ‘However, aided by rational and right-minded people abroad, the Serbs, the cast-out Serbs, are bound to fight for the historical truth about the Bosnian war and prove to the world and to their own offspring that when fighting in Bosnia for their freedom they were once again defending Christian Europe from jihadist Islam. But Europe punished them for this defence by attacking them with the NATO air force’.

Preserving the war booty

Many heedlessly underestimate Dobrica Ćosić’s role in ‘updating’ the Serb national programme, which remains committed to preservation of the war booty, albeit now by diplomatic means and democratic legitimation. Ever since the signing of the Dayton accords, the integration of Republika Srpska into the Serbian economic and cultural space has remained a strategic priority. This approach to RS is reflected also in the interpretation of the war against Bosnia, which is presented as a ‘liberation war’ in which Bosnian Serbs won a historic victory. In his introduction to Nikola Koljević’s book Stvaranje Republike Srpske [The Establishment of Republika Srpska], Ćosić writes that RS is the first Serb state on the other side of the Drina, and hails Radovan Karadžić as ‘its foremost architect’; he is not a war criminal but ‘the political leader of the people of Republika Srpska’.

According to Ćosić’s updated national programme, following the arrest of Radovan Karadžić, it became necessary further to radicalise Milorad Dodik, in order to preserve the war booty and realise the plan for the separation of RS from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Regardless of the fact that Serbia, responding to pressure, has been forced to cooperate with The Hague, the anti-Hague campaign has been growing in strength due to a skilful rationalisation and relativisation of everything that comes from the Hague tribunal. A good part of the elite involved in this enterprise by playing the media, such as Dobrica Ćosić, participated in or supported the creation of a Great Serbia. Ćosić’s task has been to provide at crucial moments the basic explanation that is then further elaborated at various levels. This speaks not only of his great importance, but also of the presence of a whole organisation which is now engaged in damage limitation when it comes to interpreting and preserving the war booty. This organisation includes all key people active in culture, education, the media, etc.

Although there exist, in addition to the Hague tribunal, other special courts that punish mass crimes, this is not sufficient to produce a society’s moral regeneration. The verdicts are only one aspect of a complex process that embraces also other, non-judicial activities. It is of the greatest importance that states whose governments have pursued a criminal policy recognise this, and accept responsibility for it. It is precisely the willingness to accept responsibility that is lacking in Serbia, despite the fact that the war and its crimes ended more than a decade ago.

The bulk of the Serbian elite believes that its determination will ultimately pay off. That in the end the international community will give up its principles and come round to accepting Serbia’s demand that the Balkans be reordered on the ethnic principle. This envisages partition of Bosnia and of Kosovo, even if this may cost Serbia its EU membership. Ćosić, like many others, insists that ‘any policy that sees national salvation solely in the European Union’ should be viewed as ‘an illusion and a beggarly utopia’. For membership of the EU signals closure of the state question, and with it an end to border revisions. Hence the absurdity of the insistence on reviewing Kosovo’s independence. The chances are small that the application before the International Court of Justice to examine the legality of Kosovo’s proclamation of independence will be successful, especially after the verdict against ‘the Six’ for crimes committed in Kosovo in 1998-99. The Serbian elite is aware of this, which is why, following the verdict, damage limitation and the programme of preserving war booty have over the past few months become increasingly preoccupied with territory in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A verdict for genocide and joint criminal enterprise in the case of Radovan Karadžić would greatly hinder them in this. This is why Belgrade’s approach towards the Hague tribunal is at this stage concentrated on making sure that the trials against Karadžić and eventually Mladić do not end in 2010, when it has been announced that the ICTY will close down. Or else that, due to lack of time, Karadžić (and eventually Mladić) may be tried for a more restricted range or lesser category of crimes, such as would not create international legal obstacles to Bosnia’s partition.

Awaiting the judgement of history

Karadžić’s defence has been joined by practically the whole of Serbia’s legal profession, especially the relevant part of the University of Belgrade’s law faculty. Most of them are involved also with the case against Vojislav Šešelj. Oliver Antić, former dean of the law faculty and now a member of the Serb People’s Party (SNS), is on Šešelj’s defence team. They have managed until now to delay by various means the start of Karadžić’s trial. Much time has been spent on the alleged deal between Holbrooke and Karadžić, which as everyone knows would have no bearing on the court proceedings even if it existed. They have also launched a website,, which provides a background on the war in Bosnia, Yugoslavia’s collapse, etc. The website does not as yet list the names of those involved with the defence. But the Committee for the Truth about Radovan Karadžić, headed by Kosta Čavoški, has been collecting and sorting out documents for Karadžić’s defence for many years.

In their denial of truth about the recent past, a large number of these authors protest that ‘the truth remains to established’ and that ‘we don’t have all the facts yet, one must wait for the judgement of history’. But there are also those who insist that ‘clarifying the past is impractical, we must look forward to the future’.

In the aftermath of Milošević’s fall, on 5 October 2000, the Serbian elite developed a strategy that is still being pursued. The so-called Koštunica commission for truth and reconciliation, formed soon after, had as its starting premise that confronting the past should be placed in a broad historical context which would show that during the twentieth century the Serbs were for the most part victims of others, and that it was this that caused the Balkan wars of the last decade.

Since the international community too has realised that the trials conducted in The Hague have not led Serbian society to confront the past, there has been a new initiative aimed at reaching an understanding of the dramatic events of the 1990s. The idea is that a commission would aid the process of normalisation and reconciliation in the region. Up to now there were two such initiatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the only concrete result was achieved by the Commission for Srebrenica established by the RS government in December 2003. Apart from the concrete and relevant investigative results it achieved, this commission was also backed by a political consensus created under great pressure coming from the international community. A debate is now taking place about a fact-finding commission for war crimes committed in the area of the former Yugoslavia (REKOM), which is supported by a coalition of NGOs. A political consensus for REKOM does not exist as yet, and the ongoing process of consultation is designed to establish the best model for confronting the truth in the region, with due respect, of course, to national specificities.

The individualisation of responsibility

It would seem, however, that a regional approach to confronting the past is the first trap promising a further relativisation of the crimes. It is true, of course, that all sides have committed crimes, and it is a fact that each victim and each perpetrator has a name. This mantra is often repeated in the activist circles close to this initiative. Asim Jusić, who gained a doctoral degree at the law department of the Central European University in Budapest, calls this approach ‘through individualisation to a general and institutional exculpation’. It is true, he continues, that ‘each victim and each perpetrator has a name’. But ‘the greatest number of victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina carried names that identified them as members of the Bosniak nationality. The victims were not selected, moreover, in accordance with their specific personal characteristics, but precisely because of characteristics that were seen as marks of a public group identity.’ Jusić insists that the same approach is applicable also to the perpetrators: ‘The vast bulk of the evidence shows that in the largest number of cases dealt with by the Hague tribunal, those who committed crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina (in Prijedor, Kozarac, Banja Luka, Foča, Srebrenica, etc.) were precisely near neighbours who “were not organised in terms of their individual characteristics, but in terms of an imagined Serb group identity”. The individualisation of responsibility thus creates the largest of holes in international criminal law, because this approach assumes that, when all is said and done, a mass crime like genocide does pay off.’

He illustrates this by reference to Republika Srpska. ‘You are allowed to condemn the genocide, but not allowed to link this verdict with Republika Srpska. It is as if, while condemning the Holocaust, you treated any condemnation of Nazism as “politicisation”,’ writes Jusić.

There is a significant difference in the methodological establishment of true individual tragic destinies and of a truth that would be acceptable to society as a whole. Critics of REKOM believe that this conflict between micro- and macro- truths represents the greatest methodological problem that the members of the commission would have to deal with in the final phase: how to harmonise not only the facts, but also the ideological and other causes that led to mass violence.

The final conclusion of the South African Commission on Truth and Reconciliation is considered the most honest to date, because the latter’s reports cite four kinds of truths: factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or dialogic truth; and healing or restorative truth.

It is difficult to imagine that any commission would be able to collect more forensic truths than those established by the Hague tribunal. Despite all criticisms of the Hague prosecution for its superficial conduct of some trials, it is unlikely that a coalition of NGOs will produce greater expertise than the large number of prosecutors and experts who in their different capacities worked for the Hague tribunal.

Dialogic truth

The public hearings that form part of all truth commissions, and which exist also in the REKOM programme, insist that the victims must tell their side of the story. Following fifteen years of the operation of the Hague tribunal, this aspect too appears somewhat superfluous. Researchers into war crimes have noted that, in the absence of concrete results, the victims become tired of repeatedly telling their stories. Dialogic truth is that reached through interaction, and this truth precedes restorative truth. Republika Srpska is founded on genocide, and there is no dialogue that can alleviate this fact.

Also, to insist on a regional approach to dialogic truth before the opening of inter-state dialogue may be a trap of relativisation. For to offer Serbian society a regional dialogue before it itself has undergone catharsis would lead not to a dialogic but to a watered-down truth. This is why REKOM’s regional approach could contribute to the strength of those forces which deny, or relativise, the fact that Serbia fought four wars during the 1990s.

Sonja Biserko is president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Edina Bećirević teaches at the faculty of criminology and security studies of the University of Sarajevo. This analysis has been translated from B-H Dani (Sarajevo), 9 October 2009.