Public Lecture - 28 May 2015 - Sarajevo BiH - Gallery 11/07/95

Intent and denial

Dr Edina Becirevic

University of Sarajevo


I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak at this event today. This is one of the best ways to battle genocide denial. I would also like to use this opportunity to thank other speakers, genocide scholars, activists, both international and Bosnian. I am aware that they’ve dedicated a significant part of their life to prove genocide in Bosnia and to battle genocide denial. So, I thank them as a Bosnian and, I believe, on behalf of all of us.

‘The past’, as the famous writer L.P. Hartley once remarked, ‘is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ It’s not possible to live in the past. We’re all aware of that. However, we have to face it, the denial of the past is different. It lives in the present. The denial of genocide that exists today in Bosnia and Herzegovina casts a dark cloud over its future and prevents the reconciliation process. Denial has many forms. Well known academics have given this topic the attention it deserves. This is the final stage of genocide and the so called normal practice of genocideers. It is generally associated with the Jewish Holocaust, yet each genocide in history has been followed by complex denial strategies. Some of those strategies, and we’re aware of those strategies in Bosnia, are: to blame the victim, another one is, for example, to justify the causes of violence and the third one is to set the genocide in intentionally wrong historical context. And these are just a few. There are many ways to deny genocide and many strategies the denialists use.

Israel Charny mentions one of the strategies using academia. That is to insist on proving endlessly what the facts are and claiming that we do not know enough to establish historical facts. Even when we know plenty, we still don’t know enough. That is one of the ways some academics, who wrote about genocide in Bosnia, denied it.

Bosnia is an example of failed genocide prevention in 1992, but it is also an example of a muddled transitional justice process. That transitional justice process is actually so muddle that it allowed the denial to become a norm. Denial in Bosnia is not a deviation. It is part of the everyday media and political discourse, particularly in the Republika Srpska and Serbia.
The trials and judgements of the ICTY and the State Court represent a very important historical archive. I used to criticise the Hague tribunal and I still do, sometimes. But those trials and judgements, especially documents used in those trials, can be a very effective strategy to deconstruct genocide denial. However, so far, they confirmed that the only genocide committed in Bosnia is the one in Srebrenica. Not everything is finished yet. We are yet to see if the trials of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic will prove genocide for 1992.

The question of intent - or in the case of genocide - the special genocide intent - sometimes is understood as part of a broader argument concerning which cases of mass violence are entitled to be labelled as genocide and which are not. So the Serbian genocide against Bosnian Muslims from 1992 until 1995 is often highlighted in this debate and it is often used as an example in a broader academic discussion about genocide. When it comes to Bosnia authors differ in their interpretation of the conflict. Some call it genocide, while others call it ethnic cleansing. Those who claim Bosnia and Herzegovina did not experience genocide from 1992 until 1995, until Srebrenica, they emphasise the lack of genocidal intent on the part of the Serb and the Bosnian Serb perpetrators.

Michael Mann, for example, commenting on the judgement imposed on Radoslav Krstic who was found guilty of the genocide in Srebrenica, said: ‘I would prefer to call this a local genocidal outburst set amidst a broader murderous cleansing of Muslims which was too erratic and regionally varied to be termed genocide.’ Also it is often implied that the events in Srebrenica were an inevitable result of the campaign of ethnic violence. But a distinction is made between the nature of that campaign and the genocide in July 1995.

In international law and policy making we are aware that terminology and semantics matter. They matter a lot. Especially during the conflict. The term ‘ethnic cleansing’ allowed the relativisation of guilt and accommodation of the idea that all sides are equally guilty. We are all familiar with the notion of ancient hatred, the idea that Bosnian people have hated each other for centuries and that the war that started in 1992 is kind of a natural continuation of this hatred. And this scenario and this interpretation of genocide and the aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina were ideal for the non-interventionist politics of the UN. For if everybody is guilty there is nobody to punish, there is nothing to prevent and no one simply has to get their hands dirty. After all, ethnic cleansing, unlike genocide, does not call the world governments to honour the mandate imposed on them by the Genocide Convention of 1948. According to the Genocide Convention they have to prevent it and end it by any means necessary.

Florence Hartmann mentioned Ambassador Diego Arria and I will mention him again. In 1993 the term ‘slow motion genocide’ was introduced by Ambassador Arria. He led the Security Council delegation to Srebrenica at the end of April that year. Arria, as you also heard from Hasan (Nuhanovic), observed thousands of refugees living in the streets, witnessed Serb forces denying them food and saw that they were exposed to sniper fire and shelling on a daily basis. According to the Genocide Convention that is genocide. At that time forensic evidence from mass graves in eastern and northwestern Bosnia had not been discovered yet. Arrias impression in the spring of 1993 was that the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica were being prepared for mass slaughter. And, unfortunately, he was right. What he called a ‘slow motion genocide’ escalated in July 1995. But when Arria coined the term ‘slow motion genocide’ he did not know that mass graves with victims from the 1992 violence had already littered eastern and northwestern Bosnia by the time he visited Srebrenica. The mass executions that took place in Srebrenica in July 1995 had already been carried out in other towns throughout the region three years before. Those early events represented by the European media as uncontrolled violence perpetrated by rogue paramilitaries, as we said already, ancient hatreds and ethnic cleansing, and all sides are equally guilty, that is how it was presented by the European but also American media. Yet transcripts of the Republika Srpska Assembly, the parastate body essentially legitimized by Dayton at the war’s end, showed that the genocidal rhetoric was a norm. Talk of the extermination of Bosnian Muslims was everyday discourse for Bosnian Serb so called parliamentarians. At one of those sessions, for example, the delegate from Prijedor, Srdo Srdic, who boasted in 1993 that they had wiped Prijedor clean, that it is no longer a green Muslim municipality said: ‘We fixed them and sent them packing.’, thinking of Bosnian Muslims. Where exactly Serbian military and police forces sent the Bosnian Muslims packing was know all along to those who were willing to see the truth. But when exhumations began after the war, it became obvious to everyone else. Still, what took place in Prijedor was not considered genocide among international decision makers, judges in the Hague or international media, with the exception of the Hague prosecution who defined in the indictments the events in Prijedor as genocide. The exhumations in Prijedor were of a significant number of smaller mass graves but those small mass graves were apparently not shocking enough to warrant that label. In October 2013 near Prijedor, Tomasica, the largest mass grave not only in Prijedor but in whole Bosnia, was discovered and it answered with certainty where the Bosnian Muslims from that area of Prijedor were sent packing in the summer of 1992. Just to mention that Tomasica mass grave is in the vicinity of a Serbian village, just a short walk to the first houses.

As a genocide researcher I used to get very angry and upset in conversation with denialists in the past. I somehow don’t get upset and angry anymore. It is because ICTY trials give abundance of evidence that Serbian and Bosnian Serb leadership had the intent to destroy Bosnian Muslims as a group long before Srebrenica on the whole territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And now, in conversation with those who deny it I use that evidence and it is hard for them to battle that. So, the way to battle the denial and those in academia who ‘innocently’ deny, claiming that genocide intent is difficult to prove, is to actually quote them what the perpetrators themselves were planning and openly talking among themselves long before 1995. Perpetrator-based research is the best strategy to counter genocide denial. One only needs to research the archive of the Hague Tribunal or the State Court and read the documents whose authenticity even lawyers of the perpetrators do not deny. For example, on the May 12th 1992 session, Momcilo Krajisnik, the president of the so called Parliament of the Bosnian Serbs, read the six Serbian strategic goals. One of the goals is to physically separate the Serbs from other people in Bosnia. From Professor Robert Donia we’ve heard in detail about the other documents and other goals.
Ratko Mladic is the general who is on trial for genocide in the Hague and not only for genocide in Srebrenica, but in other municipalities as well. On May 12th 1992, after Krajisnik read those six strategic goals, Mladic warned both of them, Krajišnik and Karadzic, that this goal cannot be implemented without committing genocide. Do not have any illusions. Mladic did not have moral concerns about it. He was only worried about how Karadzic and Krajisnik would explain that to the world and what would the world say for their actions and weather that would provoke military intervention.
Radovan Karadzic, who is also accused for genocide in Bosnia, did not hide his genocidal intent. There are many instances in which he shared his intent in conversation with his close allies. In October 1991, for example, he told his brother that ‘there will be a war until their obliteration’ and that his plan is ‘to first kill all of the leaders of Bosnian Muslims.’
And if you read more, you will find that genocidal rhetoric was prevalent in the public discourse of the Bosnian Serb political and military leaders. Some historical analysis of the events that relies on forensic evidence, mass graves and witness testimonies, but also on documents prove that genocidal intent was not hidden somewhere deep in the mind of the perpetrators. It was discussed openly at the session of the so called Bosnian Serb Parliament. For you, potential young genocide researchers, who sit here today, and for others who wonder whether the Bosnian Serb leadership had the intent to destroy the Bosnian Muslim group as such as early as 1991, I suggest the perpetrator-based research. Instead of a conclusion I invite you to read the following quotes used in the Hague Tribunal and to make a conclusion for yourself. Those are only four slides.

1. Mladic, 12 May 1992
„We cannot... use a sieve to sift so that only Serbs...stay, or so that the Serbs fall through and the rest leave. I do not know how Mr. Krajisnik and Mr. Karadzic would exsplain that to the world. That would be genocide.“

2. Karadzic and Mladic , 13 October 1991
„In a just a couple of days Sarajevo will be gone and there will be five hundred thousand dead, in one month the Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia.“

3. 16 October, 1991, Karadzic to his brother
„There will be a war until their obliteration... first of all, none of their leaders will live. They will all be killed in three or four hours. They won't stand a chance.“

4. Karadzic, July 1992
„...Neither the Serbs nor Croats birth rate calculated together can control the incursion of Islam into Europe, because in 5 to 6 years there would be 51% Muslims in unitary Bosnia... this conflict was instigated to make Muslims dissapear.“

Dr Edina Becirevic, Bosnia And Herzegovina
Edina Becirevic is an associate professor of security studies at the University of Sarajevo. Her research focuses on the causes of war and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995, as well as on transitional justice in the complex, post-war period, and she has published extensively on these topics. Her book, Genocide on the Drina River, published by Yale University Press in July 2014 examines the genocide committed by Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Prior to her academic career, Becirevic was a journalist. She covered wars in Croatia and Bosnia for British-American TV agency WTN. She is also well known for her coverage of war crimes trials at The Hague, where she also published commentaries and analysis for the award-winning Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Beyond her journalistic and academic careers, Becirevic is engaged in civic activism.