Academic Dishonesty of Professor Ian Buruma

Academic Dishonesty of Professor Ian Buruma
Author: Daniel Toljaga

In a recent Opinion piece published in The Globe and Mail on May 30, 2011, Prof. Ian Buruma challenged the momentous finding of international law that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was a crime of genocide.(1) We should expect the comments of a professor of human rights and journalism (at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.) to embody integrity and conscientious research, particularly when discussing a subject of such gravity – “the worst [crime] on European soil since the Second World War”, according to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.(2) Instead Prof. Buruma deals with complex issues superficially, partially and misleadingly.

It may or may not be relevant that Prof. Ian Buruma is of Dutch origin, but reading his attempt to redefine our understanding of what happened at Srebrenica it’s impossible not to remember the involvement of his countrymen, the Dutch troops who allowed conquering Serb forces to separate families, terrorize and forcibly remove the women and children of the enclave and systematically execute 8000 men and boys. They even ordered refugees to leave the protection of the United Nations base and handed them over for execution. In his sweeping assertions about military intervention contributing to making violence worse, Prof. Buruma omits any reference to the consequences of the military inaction at Srebrenica.

At the same time Buruma not only omits inconvenient facts, he misrepresents what actually happened and the wider context in which the massacre occurred. What happened at Srebrenica was not simply an instance of ethnic cleansing in the context of a “civil war”, as Buruma portrays it, it was the culmination of a systematic programme to eliminate the Bosniak population of Eastern Bosnia. It took place in the context of a Serb strategy of territorial expansion of which ethnic homogenization was a key component. The events that took place in July 1995 that the international courts determined constituted a crime of genocide were preceded by three years of what the United Nations described as “slow-motion process of genocide”.(3) As an academic responsible for teaching students basic principles of human rights and journalism, Buruma’s disregard for established facts concerning his subject is unforgivable.

Buruma’s analysis of Srebrenica is framed by his mischaracterization of the Bosnian war as a “civil war”. Superficially plausible as that description might sound to an uninformed undergraduate student, Prof. Buruma should know better. The Bosnian war was not a civil war; to represent it as such is partisan misinformation. As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has confirmed, it was an international armed conflict.(4) It involved several sides: the government of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the substantial military involvement of the governments of Serbia and Croatia in alliance with the self-proclaimed entities of Republika Srpska, Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia and Autonomous Region of Western Bosnia, as well as the military intervention of NATO.(5) But essentially the war was an attempt by an aspirant regional power, Serbia, aided by local allies, to integrate Serb-populated areas of not just one but two other sovereign nations, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its own territory.

Having described the Bosnian war as a civil war Prof. Buruma warns that “the sides cannot easily be divided into victims and aggressors, good and evil”. Overlooking the existence of a “joint criminal enterprise” that set out to create a Greater Serbia means disregarding the facts again. The overwhelming majority of war crimes documented during the Bosnian war were committed by the Serb side in pursuit of that goal.(6)

Certainly, as Buruma notes, there were victims on the Serb side too (many of them were killed by the Bosnian Serb army in its efforts to destroy multi-ethnic Bosnian cities like Sarajevo), but the great majority were sacrificial casualties of the military campaign aimed at eliminating non-Serbs from the Bosnian territory as part of the “Greater Serbia” project. Millions of Germans died during World War II in the service of Hitler’s pursuit of a racially purified Third Reich. Prof. Buruma’s flawed line of reasoning takes us in a similar direction to equating the National Socialists with their victims.(7)

There were far many more victims of Prof. Buruma’s notional “civil war” among the non-Serb and in particular the Bosniak population – not just over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys systematically murdered at Srebrenica. The campaign of genocide in pursuit of territorial control through ethnic purification extended far beyond Srebrenica. Prof. Buruma fails to notice or omits to mention that the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic are currently on trial on charges of genocide in eight other municipalities across Bosnia in addition to Srebrenica – Bratunac, Foča, Ključ, Kotor Varoš, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Vlasenica and Zvornik.(8)

In seeking to test the provisions of the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide the ICTY defined the target group for the genocide at Srebrenica as being the Bosnian Muslims of eastern Bosnia – the majority population of the wider Podrinje region of which Srebrenica was a residual “uncleansed” remnant by the end of 1992. Judges at the ICTY and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) carefully explained why they considered that what took place at Srebrenica fulfilled the definition of genocide provided by the Genocide Convention, the relevant legal framework. Prof. Buruma not only disregards the wording of the Convention itself, he uses a crude and discredited comparison between the Bosnian Serbs’ failure to kill every surviving inhabitant and the Nazis’ alleged aim to annihilate “all Jews” in order to challenge the Tribunal’s careful argument.

Based on the fact that the Bosnian Serbs did not kill all members of their target group. Buruma asserts that: “Ethnic cleansing, while reprehensible, is not the same as genocide… By invoking Hitler’s ghost too often, we trivialize the enormity of what he actually did.“(9) His implication, that reference to genocide in this instance is incorrect, inappropriate and exploitative betrays Buruma’s lack of any genuine understanding of the Genocide Convention – the Convention was not intended to establish the Holocaust as a benchmark for judging the effectiveness of future genocides, it sought to prevent any repetition of the Holocaust.

The ICTY has, long ago now, considered and dismissed the notion that the concept of genocide requires or implies an attempt to eliminate “all members” of the target group. The aim of the Convention is not simply to punish genocide after the fact, it is to prevent the crime proceeding to completion. That is implicit in the definition of genocide as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. Prof. Buruma suggests that the definition of genocide has been deliberately widened in order to use it as a means of justifying military intervention. Instead he seems himself to have wilfully narrowed it so as to deny it any practical value. The Genocide Convention is the basic legal framework for the use of the term, and it is very clear on the matter.

In applying the provisions of the Convention, judges at the ICTY determined that the specific target group did not have to include all members of the national, ethnical, racial or religious group. We need only ask ourselves whether the Nazi attempt to trade the lives of Hungarian Jews for cash defines the Holocaust as something less than genocide, but the ICTY examined more substantial ways of delimiting a target group for the purposes of the Convention, such as geographical location and control. The ICTY’s Appeal Chamber judgement of Radislav Krstić notes that:

“Nazi Germany may have intended only to eliminate Jews within Europe alone; that ambition probably did not extend, even at the height of its power, to an undertaking of that enterprise on a global scale. Similarly, the perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda did not seriously contemplate the elimination of the Tutsi population beyond the country’s borders. The intent to destroy formed by a perpetrator of genocide will always be limited by the opportunity presented to him.“(10)

The ICTY dismissed the suggestion that sparing the lives of the Bosniak women and children forcibly transferred from Srebrenica was anything other than the most effective method that the Serb leadership were able to devise for minimizing the risk of retribution while proceeding with their plan of genocide under the watching eyes of the international community. In Krstic’s appeal, the Court found:

“The decision not to kill the women or children may be explained by the Bosnian Serbs’ sensitivity to public opinion. In contrast to the killing of the captured military men, such an action could not easily be kept secret, or disguised as a military operation, and so carried an increased risk of attracting international censure… The international attention focused on Srebrenica, combined with the presence of the UN troops in the area, prevented those members of the VRS [Serb Army] Main Staff who devised the genocidal plan from putting it into action in the most direct and efficient way. Constrained by the circumstances, they adopted the method which would allow them to implement the genocidal design while minimizing the risk of retribution.”(11)

It is worth comparing Prof. Buruma’s schema denying genocide with the words of Judge Theodor Meron, read out directly from Krstic’s appellate judgement to the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial commemoration in June 2004. Judge Meron, himself a Holocaust survivor, presided over the ICTY’s appellate hearing in the Krstic case, when the Court concluded unanimously that the Srebrenica massacre was Genocide:

“‘Among the grievous crimes this Tribunal has the duty to punish, the crime of genocide is singled out for special condemnation and opprobrium…. The gravity of genocide is reflected in the stringent requirements which must be satisfied before this conviction is imposed. These requirements – the demanding proof of specific intent and the showing that the group was targeted for destruction in its entirety or in substantial part – guard against a danger that convictions for this crime will be imposed lightly. Where these requirements are satisfied, however, the law must not shy away from referring to the crime committed by its proper name. By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the forty thousand Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity. The Bosnian Serb forces were aware, when they embarked on this genocidal venture, that the harm they caused would continue to plague the Bosnian Muslims. The Appeals Chamber states unequivocally that the law condemns, in appropriate terms, the deep and lasting injury inflicted, and calls the massacre at Srebrenica by its proper name: genocide. Those responsible will bear this stigma, and it will serve as a warning to those who may in future contemplate the commission of such a heinous act.’” (12)


There are circumstances in which questioning whether use of the term genocide is justifiable in relation to a particular situation or another may be part of a legitimate inquiry into the nature of the crime and effective means for its prevention. Too often, though, the way in which the analysis proceeds reveals an ignorance of (or disregard for) established fact that shades into revisionist denial and even the attempt to disguise hate speech. Prof. Ian Buruma’s ill-informed personal views contribute little to any debate on the subject, based as they are on a brazen unfamiliarity with the wording of the Genocide Convention and a deliberate misinterpretation of its provisions. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Buruma is concerned primarily to exploit comparisons between the Holocaust and Srebrenica, references to civil war and the alleged indistinguishability of victims and aggressors in order to provide a platform for political views concerning a military intervention which did in fact save lives – too late to prevent an avoidable slaughter but forestalling the elimination of other safe havens and a successful outcome for an even more comprehensive crime. It is unclear whether Prof Buruma’s views derive from ignorance or dishonesty but either way they are a sad offering coming from a professor of human rights and journalism.

While freedom of speech is a vital defence of the truth, the denial of historical evidence that genocide denial represents falls outside the realm of what may reasonably or legitimately be argued. On June 28 I sent Ian Buruma an email asking him to reconsider his views and realign himself with the facts. It is my hope he will respond publicly and distance himself from his earlier statements.


(1) Ian Buruma, “Muddying the meaning of genocide,” The Globe and Mail, 31 May 2011,

(2) United Nations Press Release, “Secretary-General’s message to ceremony marking the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre,” Retrieved on 10 July 2011.

(3) United Nations, “Report of the Security Council Mission Established Pursuant to Resolution 819 (1993),” S/25700, 30 April 1993.

(4) For example, see “Statement by Tribunal’s Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte to the Security Council,” 7 June 2006,

(5) Human Rights Watch, “Genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity,” 26 July 2006, download this book in pdf format for free by visiting

(6)  Roger Cohen, “C.I.A. Report on Bosnia Blames Serbs for 90% of the War Crimes,” The New York Times, 9 March 1995.

(7) Michael Hubert, “Deutschland im Wandel. Geschichte der deutschen Bevolkerung seit 1815″ (Germany in Transition. History of the German Population from 1815). ISBN 3515073922 p. 272 (1998).

(8)  For ‘Revised Indictment’ of Radovan Karadzic follow this link ; For Ratko Mladic follow this link

(9) Buruma, Ibid.

(10)   Appeals Chamber Judgement: Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic, para.13, April 19, 2004,

(11) Krstic Appeal, para 31, 32, 33.

(12) The International Criminal Tribunal’s Press Archive, “Address by ICTY President Theodor Meron at Potocari Memorial,” 23 June 2004,