In the great catalogue of human misery, the July 1995 Srebrenica genocide merits a special mention. But as horrible as the slaughter of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys was – unquestionably the worst crime of the whole brutal Bosnian conflict – the repeated, ongoing and unrelenting denial of the crime is if not worse, then at least as depressing. Today, twenty years on, that revisionist denial is strongest where it matters – in Republika Srpska and in Serbia – and its strength demonstrates the continued, long-term inability of these communities to come to terms with the past.
The denial is manifold, in forms both hard and soft. It ranges from a complete rejection that any crime took place, to disputing the number of victims or who the victims were, to emphasizing crimes against Serbs around Srebrenica or inflating the numbers of Serbs killed, to disputing the characterization of the crime as genocide as if that makes some actual moral difference. And, it needs to be said, that denial is virtually unaffected by whatever the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or the International Court of Justice said on the matter.
To demonstrate the scale of denial in cold, hard numbers, it suffices to take a look at a February 2012 survey of public opinion in Bosnia, sponsored by the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights and the OSCE and conducted by Ipsos Strategic Marketing (detailed results on file with me). The survey found that of the (mostly Serb) population of the Republika Srpska only 59.2% say that they even heard of a massacre in Srebrenica, while only 34.8% of the people who say that they’ve heard of the crime believe that it actually happened. Thus, of the whole RS population 40.8% say they’ve never even heard of any massacre in Srebrenica, 38.6% say that they’ve heard of it but that it never happened, and only 20.6% believe it did. That, dear readers, is what ‘truth and reconciliation’ in today’s Bosnia look like.
One needs to only add to that mix of denialism the sinister magic of the word ‘genocide.’ The disconnect between its incoherent public perception and the technical, legal (and morally completely arbitrary) definition of the concept, coupled with the special stigma attached to this word (which consequentially devalues all other international crimes as somehow being ‘less bad’), creates fertile ground for political manipulation. (I’d recommend in that regard this piece by the late Vojin Dimitrijevic, for those who can read Serbo-Croatian). And so in the past few weeks we had to witness the sorry spectacle of a draft Security Council resolution commemorating the Srebrenica genocide, which was proposed by the UK and contained only objectively non-objectionable, purely symbolic and legally non-binding language, which in turn provoked a firestorm of controversy in Serbia and the Republika Srpska as somehow existentially threatening the Serb people, and which was finally formally vetoed by Russia in the Council. Of all the shameful P-5 vetoes out there, this one is all the more remarkable for both its callousness and the relative emptiness of the vetoed resolution. (The apparent rank amateurism of the Brits on this matter was for its part notable, but not remarkable).
To top the whole thing off, on Saturday the Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, a supposedly pro-European, reformed and lapsed hard-line nationalist (but in reality a soft authoritarian wannabe little Putin), went to the official commemoration ceremony in Srebrenica, after much wrangling and pressure from the West. And so he went, in an act of supreme self-sacrifice, having penned a nice letter condemning the ‘terrible crime’ in Srebrenica which conspicuously avoided any mention of that nasty G-word (all this, by the way, coming from a guy who exactly twenty years ago said that a hundred Muslims should be killed for every Serb killed by NATO sorties in Bosnia). And so he went, and indeed was welcomed in doing so by the Mothers of Srebrenica and a hypocritically pontificating Bill Clinton – only to later be chased away by an angry lynch-mob which pelted him with stones and other paraphernalia while the funeral ceremony itself was taking place, in an act that was as shameful at least as much as it was stupid. And so he went back to Serbia, deftly playing the part of the victim while claiming the moral high-ground, and feeding into the grand Serb narrative of (self-)victimization along the way.
Nothing else needs to be said – the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide has been commemorated in the most appropriate possible way: shamefully.