Edina Bećirević

Genocide in Bosnia1





Case study 5


Over twenty years on, authors and scholars still differ in their interpretations of the mass violence committed against Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some argue, as I have since the war’s end, that genocide was a process which took place throughout the conflict, starting in 1992 and culminating in Srebrenica in 1995. This is a view shared by scholars such as Marko Attila Hoare, Adam Jones, Eric D. Weitz, Norman Cigar, and Smail Čekić, among others.2

Yet, according to some, including Michael Mann and Jacques Semelin, what Bosniaks experienced was not genocide, but was at most “ethnic cleansing.”3 Scholars who make this claim often frame it within the context of intent, perhaps even acknowledging that Serb perpetrators engaged in genocidal actions, but not that those actions were matched by a genocidal mindset. Michael Mann has implied, for instance, that the crimes of Radislav Krstić – who was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica by judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – were somehow too incoherent to amount to genocide. Mann referred to Krstić’s actions as a “local genocidal outburst, set amidst a broader murderous cleansing of Muslims which was too erratic and regionally varied to be called genocide.”4

One hears more and more about fake news, anti-intellectualism, and a post-fact world; and this discussion, which now occupies people globally, reflects how Bosnians in Sarajevo have felt ever since they engaged in wartime arguments with international visitors and journalists who, under the pretense of “objectivity,” offered the same treatment to those blatantly spreading lies, propaganda, and inciting ethnic division as they did to those who advocated for a united and multinational Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After all, Serbia had openly invaded Bosnia and Herzegovina in the spring of 1992 and had targeted the non-Serb population – particularly Bosniaks, but also Croats in some places as well as Serbs who disagreed with these actions. At the outset, armed forces were coordinated by leadership in Belgrade via the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), Bosnian Serb Territorial Defense units, militias based in Serbia, and Bosnian Serb civilian authorities headed by the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). Warlords like Vojislav Šešelj and Željko Ražnjatović (known as Arkan) led militias that participated in genocidal operations which were harmonized with actions of the JNA. By May 1992, some 14,000 JNA troops from Serbia and Montenegro had been transferred into a new force – the Army of Republika Srpska – established under the self-proclaimed Serb para-state in Bosnia, which Belgrade continued to finance and supply.5

The Serbian aggression was recorded by journalists, both domestic and international, on a regular basis. They showed the shelling of civilians, the destruction of mosques and other cultural monuments, the aftermath of mass killings, and testimonies of rape by Bosnian Muslim women. Some of the photojournalists who captured these crimes on film received international awards, and some of the journalists who reported on them won Pulitzer prizes; and yet these images and stories did not compel international political action. Indeed, not even footage from concentration camps near Prijedor, run by Bosnian Serb authorities, prompted the world to respond.

In Bosnia, we wondered how the world could close its eyes to this. These were real concentration camps, with barbed wire and starving civilians! Hadn’t Europe and the Western world said “Never again” after the Holocaust? Bosnians had no weapons, and couldn’t defend ourselves. “Why won’t you intervene to stop the genocide?” we pleaded.

“At least stop the arms embargo!”

The deafness with which these arguments were met in mighty capitals around the globe and in the UN Security Council was evidence of how deeply embedded certain narratives had become during the conflict, and rather quickly. The dominant narrative of international policy makers was that the mass violence occurring in Bosnia was not genocide, but “ethnic cleansing” linked to “ancient hatreds.” By introducing the term “ethnic cleansing” and insisting the conflict in Bosnia was a civil war – in which Serbia and its Bosnian Serb collaborators were most responsible for crimes yet “all other sides” were also to blame –the UN and world governments avoided having to comply with the obligation of all parties to the Genocide Convention to intervene in cases of genocide. So, even as genocide was broadcast in cruelly vivid images on international newscasts, the international community felt freed from any apparent culpability and ignored the duty to prevent it.

In three and a half years, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed approximately 100,000 lives.6 In 1993, the establishment of the ICTY brought temporary hope that justice meted out by international criminal law could make up for the mistakes of international politics; but, Bosnians were once again disappointed. The cells of the Tribunal remained empty for the duration of the conflict, and without indictees to try, judges engaged in convoluted debates on legal procedures that resulted in unrealistically high standards for proving genocidal intent. Meanwhile, those committing genocide in Bosnia carried on undisturbed, facing victims who, thanks to the UN arms embargo, were denied the right to defend themselves.7 During the summer of 1995, the scale and intensity of the killing escalated to such a degree that international actors were compelled to intervene. In July, the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica was conquered by Serb forces, who killed 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys over just a couple of days, and the failure of UN troops to protect civilians there finally pushed the international community toward military action.

Yet, when peace talks then resumed with renewed determination on the part of Western negotiators, the resulting plan – the Dayton Peace Agreement – defied all principles of justice. Territory that had been acquired by genocide was awarded to the Serbs who had perpetrated it, some of whom had already been indicted by the ICTY. Indeed, at the negotiating table, these crimes won Serbs half the pre-war territory of Bosnia as well as the freedom to transform the self-invented Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the officially recognized entity known as Republika Srpska. As Nena Tromp has noted, Slobodan Milošević had long sought to “transform de facto military conquests into de jure territorial gains, with the ultimate goal that territories seized by Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia be recognized in a peace settlement mediated by the international community.”8

It wasn’t until the end of 1995, after NATO intervention, that the term “genocide” finally crossed the threshold of international political, journalistic, and academic discourse on Bosnia, and only in the context of events in Srebrenica. Since then, both courts in The Hague have also applied the label of genocide to only the massacre that occurred in Srebrenica and, in one case, to killings that took place just weeks later in Žepa, describing all the crimes that took place prior to this as ethnic cleansing.9 There remains surprisingly little scholarly consensus on the definitions of both genocide and ethnic cleansing, but there are clear political and legal motivations for use of one term or the other given the obligation of signatory states to the Genocide Convention to respond to cases of genocide. Practically, the terms are associated with different degrees of international accountability. And so, controversy about the definition of genocide has negatively impacted both its prevention and war crimes prosecutions in its aftermath.

Decisions from international criminal law have characterized genocidal intent as something buried so deeply in the mind of a perpetrator that it is nearly impossible to prove; but transcripts of parliamentary proceedings, recorded telephone intercepts, and other authenticated evidentiary documents from the ICTY show that genocide against Bosnian Muslims was planned and implemented by leaders like Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and Ratko Mladić, with the full knowledge and participation of a wide circle of Serb political, security sector, and military actors. In these documentary materials, the intent of Serb elites to partially destroy Bosnian Muslims as a group (the definition of genocide put forth by the Genocide Convention) is plainly clear. General Mladić himself said in May 1992 that without “a sieve to sift” the non-Serbs out of Bosnia, the only way to achieve Serb goals “would be genocide.”10

Lacking a standardized conceptualization of genocide, the lens of “judicial truth” should be just one through which genocide researchers and historians view any case of genocide. In fact, without the burden of a verdict, the rich documentary sources that comprise a trial record may be examined in a new light, perhaps illuminating undiscovered value. This was the experience of former ICTY investigator Nena Tromp, who worked for years on the Slobodan Milošević case. When Milošević died in his cell at the ICTY in 2006, Tromp and her colleagues were faced with the question of what value a trial record has when the trial itself has no verdict; and Tromp sought the answer by undertaking an exhaustive study of the legal processes that controlled the flow of evidence in the case, the legal narratives that emerged from the record, and the transformative effects of the trial in Serbian society. She concluded that, “those of us with a professional interest in international criminal trials must work on the basis that lawyers and judges in international courts are doing their best with the material available to them; but we would be wise to remind ourselves that, sometimes, significant political manipulations influence what evidence is made available.”11 And further, that “states simply cannot be relied on to tell the truth or to resist corrupting and interfering in international legal processes.”12

What’s more, judicial truth as determined in verdicts often represents a departure from sociological theories that frame genocide as a process, requiring time to plan, serious organization to perpetrate, and extensive participation on the part of its executers. Ton Zwaan argues, for instance, that genocide is never an isolated event or a single act, but “is more adequately conceptualized as a process in space and time: an interconnected series of many different acts by a considerable number of interdependent people, acting individually and in organized, collective forms.”13 And evidence from trial records reveals that those who engage in this process are sometimes surprisingly indiscreet; thus, a focus on discerning the concealed intent of individuals – which is what much legal theory insists upon – is often an exercise detached from reality.

Indeed, documentation presented below, some of which reflects the rhetoric of Bosnian Serb leadership from the earliest days of the conflict, will make it clear just how freely leaders like Radovan Karadžić discussed their intent to destroy Bosnian Muslims. Nonetheless, in March 2016, Karadžić was acquitted on one count of genocide related to crimes committed in municipalities across Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992. He was found guilty on another count of genocide, for his role in the Srebrenica massacre, and was therefore determined to have had genocidal intent in 1995; but the Chamber was not satisfied that he had acted with genocidal intent earlier in the conflict.14

The Karadžić Judgement, which prosecutors have appealed, represented among the last opportunities for judges at the ICTY to broaden the legally-established scope of genocide in Bosnia – beyond Srebrenica and Žepa in geographic terms, and reaching back to 1992 in chronological terms. Yet, their failure to do so must be contextualized. After all, as Tromp notes, “judgements…are formed in the normative legal framework and in rigid court procedures,” which merely establish what she refers to as “forensic truth.” She explains that “the test for the introduction of evidence in court is bound by a strict forensic process…[and] the product of this process – forensic truth – is different from historical truth in several ways. For one, a historian is not bound by the same forensic process in order to include a source in a historical account and may seek corroboration in a greater variety of sources than are admissible in a courtroom.”15 Genocide researchers should therefore focus less on judicial verdicts as guideposts toward “truth” and instead view trial records, in their entirety, as sources of evidence that must be evaluated and corroborated using the full range of tools available to historians.16

Though a theoretical framework for the analysis of genocide has not yet been fully harmonized, one key similarity seen across the work of genocide scholars is an emphasis on the role of states and on the idea that genocide does not occur accidentally or spontaneously. Irving Horowitz wrote, for example, that genocide must be “conducted with the approval of, if not direct intervention by, the state apparatus.”17 Some more recent works have also highlighted the role of non-state actors in perpetrating mass crimes; and scholars such as Christian Gerlach suggest that researchers should bring a greater focus to the agendas of these non-state actors, who have an increasingly significant influence on global levels of participatory violence.18 This approach is wise, too, because it accounts for the tendency among state authorities to obscure their own involvement in genocide and frame it as uncontrolled violence carried out by “rogue” non-state actors.

Spurring a population to participate in the extermination of “others,” or even to look the other way and accept the genocidal actions of the state without resistance, requires the psychological preparation of citizens. Thus, one of the main tasks of a state in implementing a genocidal plan is to dehumanize the victim group. To this end, nationalist ideology – which serves as a powerful motivator for social crisis – can support the realization of such a plan. Horowitz pointed to nationalism as one of the primary means by which states gain approval for genocide, noting that it highlights who belongs and who does not, and also dehumanizes those who do not.19

Raphael Lemkin’s interpretation that genocide is not only about killing, but about social and cultural destruction as well, is also important to appreciate. As Martin Shaw has emphasized, genocide involves “batteries of coercive powers – legal, administrative, political, ideological and economic, as well as armed, violent and military. Defining genocide by killings misses the social aims that lie behind it.”20 Indeed, viewing mass crimes committed in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war exclusively in terms of lives lost misses the point. Marko Hoare has highlighted the logical inconsistencies that extend from the assumption that genocide is defined purely by scope noting that “although Srebrenica has come to dominate the outside world’s memory of the Bosnian genocide, it was actually the smaller of the three principal instances of mass killing during the war: the first being the initial Serb genocidal assault across Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 – more Bosniaks from Podrinje alone were killed in that year than in 1995 – and the second being the Sarajevo siege.”21

The erroneous distinction made by many scholars between crimes in Srebrenica, in which large numbers of people were killed quickly, and those carried out earlier in the Drina River basin or over time in Sarajevo and Prijedor raises questions as to how the dimensions of these crimes are weighed. Can the label of genocide really be applied only to mass murder carried out on a swift timeline? And when people are killed over time, tens and hundreds every day for over three years – as they were in Sarajevo – is this not genocide, too? Focusing solely or mostly on the scope and density of killing can divert researchers from analyzing the deeper social aims of genocidal plans; in this case, the objectives of Serbian state authorities and Bosnian Serb leadership. And yet, to understand the genocide in Bosnia, it is crucial to understand the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the expansionist ideology of key Serb actors.

In late 1989, profound changes within the European political environment significantly impacted the destiny of Yugoslavia. In both Croatia and Slovenia, Communist leadership chose to hold multiparty elections, and in the spring of 1990, Communist slates in both republics lost. In Slovenia, the liberal-nationalist coalition, which advocated sovereignty and economic independence for the republic, swept into power behind former Communist leader Milan Kučan. In Croatia, the opposition led by Franjo Tuđman won a convincing victory. Despite serious political attempts on the part of Slovenia and Croatia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia, to transform Yugoslavia into a confederation, Serbia resisted. And so, after referendums on independence, leaders in both Slovenia and Croatia declared the secession of their republics from the SFRY in June 1991.

Slovenia’s exit from the Federation was met with only minimal military opposition; but in Croatia, the JNA openly took up Milošević’s cause to create a Greater Serbia.22 By late 1991, it was clear that the Yugoslav People’s Army was acting in the specific interests of Serbs and Montenegrins. As the year came to an end, the Presidency of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted to follow Slovenia and Croatia, and apply for independence.

By then, Karadžić had already openly and ominously alluded to the violence that would come. Several months earlier, in a dramatic Parliament session that stretched through the night of October 14th and into the morning of October 15th, Muslim and Croat parliamentarians – supported by the Left bloc, made up of former communists who remained loyal to Bosnia – had passed a resolution demanding sovereignty for Bosnia. Serb nationalists began leaving before the voting even started; but the proceedings received wide television coverage, and before he departed Parliament, Karadžić warned: “This road is the same highway of hell and suffering which Slovenia and Croatia took. Do not think that you will not take Bosnia and Herzegovina to hell, and maybe [cause the] disappearance of the Muslim people, because the Muslim people cannot defend themselves if war breaks out here.”23

Political leaders of Serbs in Bosnia equated a declaration of independence with an inevitable partition of the state, forcing Bosnian leadership to choose between being absorbed into Milošević's Greater Serbia or confronting a Serbian aggression. By the fall of 1991, a plan that was developed to homogenize both Serb people and Serb-claimed territories in Croatia was also implemented by Serb leaders in Bosnia: A separate Bosnian Serb Assembly was formed and a process of “regionalization” undertaken, by which a Bosnian Serb para-state would be organized via Serb Autonomous Oblasts (SAOs).24 The formation of SAOs in Bosnia had begun in September 1991, then intensified in mid-October, before an early November plebiscite in which Bosnian Serbs voted to remain in Yugoslavia. A decision rendered by the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb Assembly on November 21, 1991 declared that all municipalities in which Serbs had voted – even where they were a minority – were an integral part of a now-rump Yugoslavia, and Serb municipal bodies were established throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina in these places.25

In late December 1991, following the Bosnian Presidency vote to apply for independence, Bosnian Serb leadership approved secret instructions meant to prepare these municipal bodies for war.26 There were two versions – Version “A” for municipalities in which Serbs were the majority and Version “B” for municipalities in which Serbs were a minority – outlining everything from the creation of duty rosters, to the establishment of crisis headquarters, to the designation of municipal-level Serb assemblies.27 These activities were a continuation of clandestine preparations that had started as early as August of that year, when Karadžić had issued guidelines that Bosnian Serb municipal and regional committees work in secret to insure that Serbs were organized to react quickly to calls for mobilization.28 Across Bosnia and Herzegovina, such preparations were concealed from Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in the months prior to the start of war.

Crisis headquarters were established as early as February of 1992, upon implementation of “Level Two” of the instructions, and were given orders to cooperate with JNA leadership.29 Evidence from the ICTY reveals a high degree of “interoperability of Yugoslav, Serbian, Bosnian Serb, and Croatian Serb forces.”30 It also shows that municipal headquarters across Bosnia were in direct communication not only with the Bosnian Serb Assembly, but also with Radovan Karadžić and his closest associates Momčilo Krajišnik and Biljana Plavsić.31

On February 28, 1992, the Bosnian Serb Assembly proclaimed the Constitution of the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first draft described a Serb state that also included non-Serbs; but by late 1992, this had been amended, and the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was envisioned as a state of Serbs only. Dr. James Gow testified at the ICTY that this change was “a reflection of the de facto reality on the ground, which is that the overwhelming majority of the non-Serb population… [had been in] one way or another removed from that territory.” Asked by the Prosecutor if the Bosnian Serb Constitution could itself be seen as “one of the foundations” for a policy of ethnic cleansing, Gow affirmed that it was “certainly part of that program of activity.”32

The “program of activity” to which Gow referred extended back to a mysterious plan known simply as “RAM” (meaning “the frame”), which existed from at least early 1991 and outlined a Serb strategy for maintaining a rump Yugoslavia by letting Slovenia go and conquering certain territories in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to witnesses at the ICTY, RAM originated among top circles of Serbs within the Yugoslav counterintelligence service.33 In its initial stages, the plan involved the development of a network of secret operatives whose aim was to arm Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, in preparation for war. Milan Babić, the former president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina (in Croatia), also testified about the existence of such a plan, describing Karadžić’s objectives to expel Bosnian Muslims to the river valleys and connect all Serb territories in Bosnia as a part of it.34 Babić claimed that Milošević had told him not to “stand in Radovan’s way” and had instructed both he and Karadžić to publicly maintain their loyalty to Yugoslavia, rather than to Serbia, in order to conceal their true aim to create a Greater Serbia.35

Full-blown war began in Bosnia on April 6, 1992 – the day the international community recognized Bosnian independence. As Serb forces and JNA artillery began shelling the outskirts of Sarajevo, residents gathered outside the Parliament building and naively applauded as JNA tanks passed by. They failed to comprehend yet that the JNA had become a de facto Serb army. Those Serb forces would hold the city in a monstrous siege for three-and-a-half years, during which 11,541 people – many of them children – lost their lives. The siege of Sarajevo dominated international discourse surrounding the conflict in Bosnia, largely because it was the focus of so much global media coverage. The presence there of international journalists, who rarely travelled into the rest of occupied Bosnia, brought disproportionate attention to events in Sarajevo and drew it away from the genocide that had already begun elsewhere in the country. As Gow put it, “Sarajevo became a celebrity city – known everywhere for its predicament.”36

Between March and May 1992, assorted Serb forces had launched coordinated attacks, securing main entry points into Bosnia and taking over major communication lines to establish logistical corridors. In Eastern and Northwestern Bosnia, the pattern of these early attacks illustrates the coordination and preparation of the Serb forces involved: Bosanski Brod on March 27th, Bijeljina on April 2nd, Kupres on April 4th, Foča and Zvornik on April 8th, Višegrad on April 13th, Bosanski Šamac on April 17th, Vlasenica on April 18th, and Brčko and Prijedor on April 30th. As Gow explained, these operations “established a frame around the periphery of the country, within which the reminder of the campaign was conducted.”37 This was the frame for which the RAM plan had been named.

Bosnian government forces had neither heavy artillery nor an organized army, and Serb forces faced little to no resistance in those springtime offensives. Indeed, by early May, Serbs controlled large parts of Bosnian territory.38 Occupations of cities and villages throughout Bosnia were not only directed toward seizing territory, but were meant to instill a fear in citizens that would “purify” demographics in the long-term. By expelling and exterminating non-Serbs, and destroying their cultural and religious monuments, the aim was to ensure that any non-Serbs who survived would never return to the territories they inhabited before the war.

On May 12, 1992, with the aggression well underway, Radovan Karadžić outlined Six Strategic Goals for Serbs in Bosnia, which Bob Donia asserts “served as a guide for [Bosnian Serb leadership] for the next four years.” They were to: 1) separate Serbs from the other two national (ethnic) communities; 2) establish a corridor between Semberija (in the northeast) and Krajina (in the northwest); 3) establish a Drina Valley corridor and eliminate the Drina River as a border between Serb states; 4) establish a border on the Una and Neretva rivers (practically encompassing Bosnia); 5) divide Sarajevo into Serbian and Muslim parts; and 6) ensure access to the sea for the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.39 By the time these goals were announced, some had already been achieved; and others, Bosnian Serb leaders realized, could not be attained without genocide. At one session of the Bosnian Serb Assembly, Ratko Mladić explained that, because people “are not pawns nor are they keys in one’s pocket that can be shifted from here to there,” the plan envisaged by Serb political leaders could not be put into practice without the forced elimination of Bosnian Muslims.40 If they had not already grasped the likely consequences of following through on the objectives laid out by Karadžić, Serb military and political leaders couldn’t help but be aware of them after Mladić spoke; for he actually said the word genocide.41

Still, General Mladić didn’t raise the issue of genocide because he sought to formulate less genocidal objectives for Serbs in Bosnia, but because he sought to educate Assembly members about how to represent Serb operations to international actors:

We mustn’t say that we are going to destroy Sarajevo…. We are not going to say that we are going to destroy the power supply pylons or turn off the water supply, but…well, one day there is no water at all in Sarajevo…. We have to wisely tell the world, it was they who were shooting, hit the transmission line and the power went off, they were shooting at the water supply facilities…[and] we are doing our best to repair this, that is what diplomacy is.42

From the very beginning of the conflict, Mladić realized that by misrepresenting reality and publicly denying responsibility for crimes, Serbs could prevent or deter military intervention by the international community. What’s more, Bosnian Serb leaders seemed to believe that their expansionist aims had the tacit approval of European governments. Over time, Karadžić made a number of statements to the Bosnian Serb Assembly that indicated he felt Europe had given him the green light for genocide; telling the Assembly in the summer of 1992, for example, that Europe did “not want any kind of Islamic state in the Balkans,” and that “this conflict was incited so that the Muslims would not exist.”43

The use of genocidal rhetoric became almost common in the Bosnian Serb Assembly, with municipal leaders boasting competitively about the role they had played in expelling or killing Muslims.44 And delegates objected to the fact that peace negotiations could result in Muslim refugees returning to their prewar homes, complaining, for instance, that they would “have to compensate for everything we destroyed and burned, and the seventeen mosques that we flattened.”45 By late in the war, Bosnian Serb leaders talked brazenly about genocide in Assembly sessions. In October 1995 – just months after the massacre in Srebrenica and with a peace plan yet to be finalized – Karadžić not only admitted that he “stood behind plans for Žepa and Srebrenica” and had “personally looked over [them],” but said that he had instructed General Krstić to “proclaim the fall of Srebrenica, and after that…chase the Turks through the woods. I approved that radical mission, and I feel no remorse.”46

This ‘radical mission’ to which Karadžić acknowledged he had given approval resulted in genocide; and yet no delegates in the Assembly asked questions, demanded accountability, or raised concerns that grave breaches of the Geneva Convention may have occurred. Their failure to prevent genocide makes them accomplices and co-conspirators. But world leaders were also largely inert or inadequate in their response; and just how far culpability for genocide extends remains an open question for genocide scholars, who ascribe varying degrees of responsibility to international actors – for their inaction, obstructionism, or even outright bias in handling the Bosnia crisis. Did these leaders look the other way as genocide was perpetrated and call it “ethnic cleansing” in order to avoid their duty to respond? Did some of them do so, as Serb leaders suggested, because they feared the creation of an “Islamic state” within European borders?47

These questions and others continue to cast a shadow over post-war Bosnia, which exists in a state of uneasy peace that is, ironically, challenged and strained by the framework of the very agreement that brought an end to the war in the first place. Domestically, it is impossible for almost any issue to escape examination through an ethnic lens; and internationally, Bosnia plays what feels like an endless game of currying favor with Western leaders to hopefully achieve Euro-Atlantic integration, aware that even then, it will always be seen by many continental partners as not quite European enough. This invalidating sense of otherness is felt by Bosnians, and especially perhaps by Bosnian Muslims; and it is for this reason that many had such strong reactions to the verdict in the 2007 genocide case that Bosnia brought against Serbia at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The Court did confirm that genocide took place in Srebrenica and found Republika Srpska leaders responsible for it, but it did not view RS institutions as “state organs” acting on behalf of Serbia, and thus found Serbia culpable only for a failure to prevent genocide.48

Yet, the ICJ judges admitted they had decided the case with insufficient evidence after documents from the Serbian Supreme Defense Council were withheld from the Court due to a deal struck between the Serbian government and the ICTY for submission of those documents to the Tribunal in the Milošević case. This negotiation robbed Bosnians of one of their last chances to hold Serbia accountable for genocide in the international legal realm, leading many to feel even more disheartened about an already fleeting sense of post-war justice. But in Serbia, the verdict was interpreted as incontestable proof that Serbia had no involvement in the genocide in Bosnia, and even many “liberal” Serbians joined the chorus of denial that has marked Serbian discourse from that point on.

In the ten years since, Bosnia has faced many more immediate issues, such as extreme unemployment and the rising influence of opportunistic foreign powers; but if the ICJ case had slipped to the back of Bosnians’ minds, it rose to consciousness again in February 2017, when – just days before the 10-year deadline – a lawyer from Sarajevo who worked on the original lawsuit filed a request to revise the 2007 judgement, at the behest of the Bosniak member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency. The Court, which had already requested that the lawyer in question be re-appointed in order to act as a valid representative of the Bosnian government, responded by contacting all three members of the Presidency for approval.49 What ensued was itself remarkably illustrative of the dysfunction of the Dayton structured Bosnian government, which split along ethnic lines – with the Croat and Serb representatives (the latter of which chaired the Presidency at the time) refusing to approve the request. Lacking consensus from the members of the Presidency, the ICJ determined that no decision had been made “by the competent authorities, on behalf of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a State,” and therefore rejected the request.50 Once again, justice for Bosnians fell victim to politics.

One might say that any case before the ICJ is bound to be political, but courts must nonetheless make decisions on legal bases, and renowned human rights lawyer David Sheffer – who wrote the request for revision in this case – expressed deep disappointment with the Court’s determination, calling the explanation of the ICJ Registrar and President “shallow exercises that fail to explain the legal reasoning of their conclusions.”51 He challenged the Court’s assertion that the lawyer who filed the request did not have the authority to do so, and said the issue “should have been considered more carefully and transparently.” Ultimately, he chided the Court for failing to take the opportunity to examine the totality of evidence that amassed from trials at the ICTY, “only a fraction of [which] were before the ICJ in 2007.”52

Bosnia and Bosnians have had a number of champions like Sheffer over the years, but those of us who lived through the war have long had the sense that the trauma and genocide we experienced – the suffering we know took place – is rarely acknowledged by the world, or is downplayed. Indeed, I have even had genocide scholars question why it is so important to me that the word “genocide” be applied to crimes in Bosnia. It is important because it is the truth of what happened, because lives were stolen, and because an ethos of multiculturalism was destroyed by an ethos of exclusivism. And, it is important because, if we are ever to find a way to prevent genocide, it will never be through dismissal or denial.









1 This article is based on the author's book Genocide on the Drina River (Yale University Press, 2014).

2 For example, see: Marko Attila Hoare, “Towards an Explanation for the Bosnian Genocide of 1992-1995,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 14, no. 3 (2014): 516-532; Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (London: Routledge, 2006); Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003); Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 1995); and Smail Čekić, Agresija na Republiku Bosnu I Hercegovinu: planiranje, priprema, izvođenje, vols. 1-2 (Sarajevo: Institut za istraživanje zločina protiv čovječnosti I međunarodnog prava, 2004).

3 See: Michael Mann, The Dark-Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacres and Genocide (London: Hurst, 2007).

4 Mann, 21.

5 Marko Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed (London: Saqi, 2004), 31-41 and 68-71.




6 There have been many manipulations of the number of casualties in the Bosnian War; with figures ranging from as high as 250,000 to as low as 97,000. However, the most recent number of total civilian deaths issued by the Demographic Unit at the ICTY's Office of the Prosecutor is 104,732. Of this total, 68,101 were Bosnian Muslim, 22,779 were Bosnian Serbs, 8,858 were Bosnian Croats, and 4,995 were “others.” See: Ewa Tabeau and Jan Zwierzchowski, “A Review of Estimation Methods for Victims of the Bosnian War and the Khmer Rouge Regime” in Counting Civilian Casualties: Introduction to Recording and Estimating Nonmilitary Deaths in Conflicts, eds., Taylor B. Seybolt, Jay D. Aronson, and Baruch Fischoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

7 Edina Bećirević, Genocide on the Drina River (New Haven, CT: Yale University press, 2014).

8 Nena Tromp, “The Unfinished Trial of Slobodan Milošević: Justice Lost, History Told” (PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2015), 394.

9 In December 2012, Zdravko Tolimir was found guilty of
genocide for crimes committed not only in Srebrenica, but
also in Žepa, in 1995. This was upheld in a 2015 Appeals
Chamber Judgement. See: Judgement, Prosecutor v. Tolimir,
No. IT-05-88/2, April 8, 2015. Available as a pdf at:
150408_judgement.pdf (accessed December 31, 2016).

10 Robert J. Donia, “Republika Srpska Assembly, 1992-1995: Highlights and Excerpts,” Report, Exhibit P537.2a, Prosecutor v. Milošević, No. IT-02-54, July 29, 2003, 5-6.




11 Tromp, “The Unfinished Trial…,” 399.

12 Nena Tromp, Prosecuting Slobodan Milošević: The Unfinished Trial (London: Routledge, 2016), 273.

13 Ton Zwaan, “On the Aetiology and Genesis of Genocides and Other Mass Crimes Targeting Specific Groups,” Expert Report, Exhibit P639, Prosecutor v. Milošević, No. IT-02-54, January 20, 2004, 21.

14 Judgement, Prosecutor v. Karadžić, No. IT-95-5/18-T,
March 24, 2016. Available as a pdf at:
160324_judgement.pdf (accessed December 20, 2016).




15 Tromp, Prosecuting Slobodan Milošević, 22.

16 For more on this see: Edina Bećirević, «The Issue of Genocidal Intent and Denial of Genocide: A Case Study of Bosnia and Herzegovina», East European Politics and Societies, xx(x)1-23 (SAGE,2010)

17 Irving Louis Horowitz, Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997), 16.

18 Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

19 Irving Louis Horowitz, Genocide: State Power and Mass Murder (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1976), 66.

20 Martin Shaw, What is Genocide? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), 34.

21 Hoare, “Towards an Explanation for the Bosnian Genocide of 1992-1995,” 518.




22 According to Borisav Jović, who served as a Serbian representative of the collective Yugoslav Presidency, General Kadijević had agreed by early July 1991 to distribute Army troops along the line of a new Serbian state in Croatian territory. For more on this, see: Borisav Jović, Poslednji Dani SFRJ: Izvodi iz dnevnika (Belgrade: Politika, 1996), 349.




23 Prosecution’s Final Pre-Trial Brief, Prosecutor v. Karadžić, No. IT-95-5/18-PT, May 18, 2009, 6-7.

24 For more on this, see: Robert Donia, “Bosnian Krajina in the History of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Expert Report, Prosecutor v. Brđanin, No. IT-99-36, January 11, 2002.

25 Official Gazette of the Serb People in BIH, “Decision on the territory of municipalities, local communities and settlements in BIH considered an integral part of the territory of Federal State of Yugoslavia,” January 15, 1992, ICTY Archives.

26 Central Committee of the SDS in BiH, “Instructions on the organization and activities of Serb bodies in BiH in extraordinary circumstances,” December 19, 1991, ICTY Archives.

27 Ibid.

28 Radovan Karadžić, “To all municipal and regional committees of the SDS in BIH—Guidelines for work,” August 15, 1991, ICTY Archives.

29 Ibid., 8.

30 For more on this, see: Tromp, “The Unfinished Trial…,”
254-274 and 402-403.

31 Ibid.

32 Testimony of Dr. James Gow, Prosecutor v. Orić,
No. IT-03-68, Transcript (November 23, 2004), 1871.

33 For example, see: Testimony of Witness B-1493, Prosecutor v. Milošević, April 10, 2003.

34 Milan Babić was the President of the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska Krajina from 1991 to 1995, which aimed to secede from Croatia and join Serbia proper. Babić was indicted for war crimes, and was the first ICTY indictee to admit guilt. He made a plea bargain with the Prosecutor and agreed to testify against Slobodan Milošević; he was sentenced to 13 years. In an interview with the author, chief Prosecutor Sir Geoffrey Nice said that Babić's testimony was the most important testimony in the Milošević case. Nice spent many hours in conversations with Babić, and his assesment was that Babić's repentance was genuine. On March 6, 2006, Milan Babić committed suicide in his cell.

35 Testimony of Milan Babić, Prosecutor v. Milošević, No. IT-02-54, Transcript (November 19, 2002), 13054-13056 and 13808-13813.




36 Gow, The Serbian Project, 184.

37 Ibid., 174-175.

38 Donia, “Bosnian Krajina in the History of Bosnia,” 72.




39 Robert J. Donia, “Republika Srpska Assembly, 1992-1995: Highlights and Excerpts,” Report, Exhibit P537.2a, Prosecutor v. Milošević, No. IT-02-54 (July 29, 2003), 3-4.

40 Ibid., 5-6.

41 Edina Becirevic, “Bosnia’s ‘Accidental Genocide,’” IWPR Tribunal Update, February 29, 2006.

42 Donia, “Republika Srpska Assembly, 1992-1995,” 6.




43 Ibid., 13.

44 For example, see: Ibid., 16 and 20.

45 Ibid., 42.

46 Ibid., 83.

47 Serb leaders were not the only ones to express that European leaders held this sentiment. In 2009, Taylor Branch, a former confidant to President Bill Clinton, published a record of his time in the White House in which he claimed that “key allies objected that an independent Bosnia would be ‘unnatural’ as the only Muslim nation in Europe.” See: Taylor Branch, “Excerpt: ‘The Clinton Tapes,’” The New York Times, September 24, 2009,
clinton-tapes.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3 (accessed December 31, 2016).




48 “Case Concerning Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” Judgement, Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia (February 26, 2007). Available online at:
p1=3&p2=3&case=91&code=bhy&p3=4 (accessed June 15, 2017).




49 See: International Court of Justice, press release, No. 2017/12, March 9, 2017. Available at:
http://www.icj-cij.org/presscom/files/6/19376.pdf (accessed June 15, 2017).

50 Ibid.

51 David Sheffer, “Some Realities Behind the Application for Revision Concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia,” Just Security, March 10, 2017,
revision-bosnia-herzegovina-v-serbia/ (accessed June 15, 2017).

52 Ibid.











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