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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Hartmann: Serbia and Srebrenica

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: April 11, 2010  

The recent Serbian Parliament’s resolution, which sort of apologizes for the extermination of Bosniaks in Srebrenica, has made it to the headlines. The two months long intense political pressure to insert some reference to genocide into said resolution (eventually adopted on March 31 by a narrow majority) proved how divisive the Srebrenica massacre remains in Serbia almost 15 years after the events.

In the meantime, some other documents similarly lacking reference to this genocide went on unnoticed. Two pending cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (“ICTY”) are consequently avoiding legal accuracy and terminology in describing what truly happened to the Bosnian victims in Srebrenica. And yet, it was the ICTY in 2004 and later in 2007 the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) which definitively declared that the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 was genocide.

Serbia’s resolution was obviously intended as an act of political and national regret - but it was not aimed at legally characterizing the conduct of individuals who took part in these mass atrocities. Supporters of those efforts argued that, at last, the resolution officially recognizes the long established facts about Srebrenica, after years of their denial and the denial of massacre’s magnitude and scale.

But Serbia not only fell short of naming the Srebrenica killings as an act of genocide, it also failed to discuss what indeed fuelled them. The historical facts, as we know them today, are such that the Bosniaks in Srebrenica were killed in the name of flawed ideologies, by individuals who enjoyed support of local and national authorities. Today, we know that the killings were not spontaneous or irrational acts of certain individuals but were rather a designated, premeditated plan to destroy parts of the Bosnian population of Srebrenica, to render the return of the Bosniaks ‘impossible’ and ‘practically inconceivable’. The last element of this murderous plan was a subsequent well organized cover-up reburial operation.

But for the members of the Serbian Parliament, the resolution was clearly not intended to go beyond the acknowledgement of the killings. It was aimed at “removing every possibility of linking the responsibility for the killings in Srebrenica to the Serbs, Serbia and the Republic of Srpska” in order “to achieve a complete individualization of responsibility”, as Nada Kolundzija, MP, explained.

Serbia did formally extend condolences and an apology to the families of the Srebrenica victims. But did so by using an argument that “not everything was done to prevent the tragedy”, instead of stating an explicit fact that “in 1995 Serbia did not do enough to prevent the mass atrocities in Srebrenica”, as it was suggested at an earlier stage by some Serbian officials. The ICJ ruling rendered in February 2007 did not find Serbia responsible for the criminal actions of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) in Srebrenica, however it explicitly identified Serbia as being guilty of failing to prevent the genocide and to punish those who committed it.

As a result, the above mentioned resolution carries some portion of an unnecessary denial, which could only hinder the painful process of historical reconciliation in the region. Judicial and forensic examinations indicate without any doubt that the extermination of nearly 8,000 Bosnian male and boys was committed with a genocidal intent, what means that it should be considered and remembered as a murder, or an attempted murder, of a part of a national group.  The facts clearly show that the killings were carried out by the Bosnian Serb forces, which acted with substantial support from Serbia (at least financial and logistical) and the support from the Milošević’s regime. During the Milošević trial, evidence was introduced that Slobodan Milošević aided and abetted the genocide in Srebrenica by utilizing the assistance of Serbia’s army (VJ) and Serbia’s MUP (police) special units.

Serbia appears not the only one which stopped short of calling Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II a genocide and which did so in order to prevent a possibility of assigning the responsibility for those killings to Serbia. In recent cases involving Serbia’s high ranking officials, the ICTY Office of the Prosecutor has also avoided reference to “genocide” when mentioning Srebrenica mass atrocities.

Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, the two former Serbian State Security Service chiefs, and Momčilo Perišić, the chief of the VJ main staff from 1993 to 1998, are indicted for their involvement in the Srebrenica killings. But the prosecutorial indictments fail to categorize the Srebrenica mass atrocities as genocide. However, the fact that Stanišić, Simatović and Perišić are not defending themselves against the charges of genocide or complicity in genocide should not have changed the legal qualification of the Srebrenica massacre. In all other cases referring to Srebrenica, the Prosecutors have always followed the ICTY case-law which defined those killings as genocide regardless whether the defendants were suspected of participation in it or not.

Stanišić, Simatović and Perišić cases are built on the evidence from the Milošević proceedings -the first ICTY trial that comprehensively examined Belgrade’s role in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the wartime. Milošević was suspected to be criminally liable for genocide and complicity in genocide in Srebrenica, including the execution of his supervisory control through Stanišić, Simatović and Serbia’s secret police special units operating in Srebrenica in July 1995. One of the key evidence which emerged during his trial and linked him to the Srebrenica genocide was the videotaped execution of six Bosnian Muslim prisoners by one of Serbia’s covert special units, the Scorpions.

Soon after the death of Milošević, which unfortunately ended his trial before a judgment was reached, the prosecutors changed their version of the events. The amended May 2006 indictment against Stanišić and Simatović, as well as the subsequent one issued in 2008, suggest that the videotaped murder perpetrated by the Scorpions was not part of the Srebrenica events. Moreover, the prosecutors dropped a claim that Stanišić and Simatović controlled and directed the Scorpions in Srebrenica, assuming instead that the unit was put at the disposal of the Bosnian Serb leadership. 

Thus, surprisingly, the two high ranking Serbia’s officials are not legally linked in any way to the Srebrenica genocide. The Prosecutors clearly contended that those two had neither any knowledge of the genocidal plan nor any de facto supervision over the Scorpions at the time of the crimes. In 2004, at the end of the presentation of the prosecution evidence in the Milošević trial, the prosecutors were saying the opposite when suggesting that Serbia’s covert army “was conceived to be a driving force in the genocide committed by Serbs on the non-Serbs”.

Even more surprising is the Perišić case in which the prosecution has suddenly redefined the “killings in Srebrenica” to be merely crimes against humanity and not genocide. The killings are said to have been perpetrated “with the intent to discriminate against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica on political, racial or religious grounds” and not with “the intent to destroy in part the Srebrenica Bosnian Muslim group”. The assumption that Perišić did not share the genocidal intent of the perpetrators does impact his criminal liability, however, it should not change the legal categorization of this historical event.

So far, the prosecutors have not explained why they disregarded the facts which define the Srebrenica massacre as genocide and what was the reason for doing so. This strange prosecutorial discretion certainly prevents any serious evidential evaluation necessary to asses whether Perišić assisted and encouraged the Srebrenica genocide and whether he knew or foresaw the specific genocidal intent of the perpetrators or rather he wrongly believed that said intent was only discriminatory.

1800 of Perišić’s VJ officers, including Gen. Ratko Mladić, were sent to serve within the VRS formation in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war and they held positions at all levels of the VRS commanding structures. Evidence shows that the decision to attack and capture Srebrenica, and other remaining eastern Bosnian enclaves, was made in coordination with Perišić and under Slobodan Milošević’s leadership. They decided that additional VJ units were to arrive in Srebrenica and Potočari at the beginning of the killings. Perisić failed to prevent his subordinates from committing the genocide and he failed to take adequate measures to punish them afterwards. Instead, a number of the VJ officers who participated in the killings were promoted after July 1995 with his approval.
It is very unlikely that the prosecution’s decision to remove word “genocide” from those indictments and to resign from bringing genocide charges was motivated by simple reason of trial economy. Stanišić, Simatović and Perišić held high level positions in Serbia’s state apparatus. It seems more likely that the prosecutors feared that labelling the Srebrenica killings as genocide in cases against Serbia’s officials might leave an irremovable stain on Serbia’s history and liability. But justice is not passing judgment on History neither it will lift up the remaining veil on Milošević regime’s deceptions.

Maja Kassa, prof.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada