Experts argue that an alarming normalisation of genocide denial has allowed a vengeful Serb nationalism to fester, blocking the path to reconciliation.
As the world marks 25 years since the Srebrenica genocide, it must also come to terms with 25 years of systematic denial that was perpetrated during and after the attempts to eradicate Bosniaks as a people and a nation.
The Srebrenica genocide in July 1995 was the culmination of the Serbian operation of extermination of Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a matter of days, over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were executed, and over 25,000 women and children were forcibly deported.
The massacres committed were largely orchestrated by Bosnian Serb military commanders, notably Gens. Radislav Krstic and Ratko Mladic, as well as the Serbs’ political leader, Radovan Karadzic, all of whom were convicted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague.
However, efforts to distort this dark chapter of history have continued to endure, and are subjected to rigorous scrutiny in a new report published by the Srebrenica Memorial Centre.
“Rather than abating with time, denial of genocide has only grown more insidious in recent years – locally, regionally, as well as internationally,” the report states in its introduction.
In an endeavour to account for the various tactics frequently employed in the arsenal of genocide denial, the report offers analysis of official bodies and individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina that have participated in narratives of denial.
It also highlights the international dimensions of denial, and how the consequences of an unchallenged triumphalism has allowed a revanchist Serb nationalism to fester.
“Genocide is a process rather than a single action and should not be reduced only to the actual physical extermination of the targeted group,” says Hariz Halilovich, a professor at RMIT University and one of the report’s contributors.
Speaking to TRT World, Halilovich argues that by “looking at the Bosnian genocide and its aftermath, we can see that in many regards the denial had been surpassed by triumphalism.”
“In genocide studies, it is the last stage of genocide,” he says, referencing the disturbing development of a culture of genocide triumphalism which has taken root in Serbia and Serb-controlled Bosnia – Republika Srpska (RS).
The Srebrenica denial industry
As Aleksandar Hemon reminds us, “any survivor of genocide will tell you that disbelieving or dismissing their experience is a continuation of genocide. A genocide denier is an apologist for the next genocide.”
Rather than seeking to establish facts, they undermine them in order to create an environment of uncertainty.
Despite overwhelming forensic evidence and unanimous rulings of multiple international criminal courts, denial of the Srebrenica genocide has persisted both locally, regionally and internationally through a matrix of alternative facts and historical revisionism.
One pervasive tactic has been the attempt to minimise the accepted death toll, which is judicially affirmed at 8,372, and allege that the numbers are exaggerated and politically motivated. Invoked alongside this is a narrative of self-defense, where the victims are portrayed as “terrorists” or armed combatants engaged in mutual violence and warfare.
Bosnian Serb leaders like Milorad Dodik frequently cite figures as low as 2,000 victims and deploy numerous conspiracy theories to explain the discrepancy in death toll calculations.
According to the report, “another common discourse which negates the identity of the victims and is deeply ingrained in the historical ideology of Serbian nationalism, argues that Bosniaks are not in fact a legitimate people, and thus by definition cannot be targeted by genocide.”
Questioning the authenticity of Bosniak identity is weaponised as a means to exclude them from legitimate victimhood, in order to peddle the claim that genocidal intent was falsely extrapolated – for if Bosniaks are a non-people, “cleansing” or “displacing” them cannot be construed as systematic acts.
Part of buttressing this Serbian nationalist historical narrative has made it convenient to cast the international judicial consensus on genocide as part of an orchestrated foreign conspiracy against the Serbian people.
Deniers like Dodik insist that it was “a staged tragedy with an aim to satanise the Serbs.”
The report highlights how the recasting of events surrounding genocide in a broader historical revisionist framework has created an ideal breeding ground for Serbian nationalist ideology, centred heavily around the rehabilitation of the Serbian Chetnik movement.
One core component of this revisionist discourse has been role reversal, whereby a Serbian victimhood is constructed and Srebrenica depicted as a “war for liberation.”
The mainstream embrace of Chetnik identity and ideology and the denial of genocide are “mutually reciprocal discourses” in both Serbia and RS, where criminals convicted of war crimes are exalted.
This has led to a ‘triumphalism’ the report explains, whereby “the glorification of war criminals and the celebration of genocide through institutions and pop culture has transformed the legacy of genocide into an inherited cultural asset in the perpetrators’ communities.”
Halilovich reiterates how the trauma of this culture of genocidal triumphalism impacts Bosniaks, who are subjected to direct and indirect forms of humiliation and discrimination: from children not being allowed to name their language Bosnian, to a “genocide entertainment industry promoted through mainstream Serbian media.”
He points out how TV shows and popular journalists regularly host talks shows with sentenced war criminals like Vojislav Seselj, and make jokes about the genocide and the collective burials of Muslim victims on July 11.
“Popularised through mass media, the genocide in Srebrenica has become a subject of songs, increasingly performed at the Serbian folk festivities and even private celebrations such as weddings and birthday parties,” he says.
Admir Mulaosmanovic, a lecturer at the International University of Sarajevo and another contributor to the report, offers a concise exposition of the genocide’s normalisation.
“Consciousness trapped in historical mythology developed triumphalism as an essential response,” he tells TRT World.
“That’s how war criminals become heroes and atrocities good deeds.”
The report reviews a number of alarming developments in denial that have unfolded in recent years.
The 2016 election of Mladen Grujic as the first Serb mayor of post-war Srebrenica has emboldened Serb nationalist elements as well, given that Grujic openly espouses genocide denial.
In 2018, the RS National Assembly called for the establishment of new commissions to reinvestigate the events in Srebrenica and to investigate the wartime suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo, which provoked strong condemnation from within Bosnia and the international community.
Since last year, an activist association called Easter Alternative has regularly been putting up posters around Srebrenica with the image of Gen. Mladic printed with the words “There was no genocide” and “Live and be healthy.”
On Orthodox Christmas Eve this year, a convoy of around 20 vehicles drove through Srebrenica and the Memorial Centre complex in Potocari waving Serbian flags, shooting firearms and blaring nationalist Chetnik music.
Equally disquieting has been the international dimensions to which genocide denial has proliferated.
“Radovan Karadzic and other masterminds of genocide were awarded prestigious accolades in Russia and Greece,” says Halilovich. He added that Russia has been providing financial support to local Serb nationalist organisations (like Eastern Alternative) and financing their campaign of genocide denial and triumphalism in Bosnia.
Moreover, an alarming expansion of denial can now be witnessed within the Western academic and literary spheres at the highest level.
In October last year, the Austrian author and avowed genocide denier Peter Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. By defending their decision in response to international outrage on the grounds of preserving space for “difference of opinion”, the Nobel committee doubled down on endorsing genocide denial.
An array of publications has added to a growing corpus of historical revisionism and denial.
Among them are Dusan Pavlovic’s (not the Serbian political economist with the same name) ‘The Battle of Srebrenica: The War for Civilization’ and American scholar Jessica Stern’s ‘My War Criminal’, which the report declares is “a flagrant attempt to humanise one of the Srebrenica genocide’s most unrepentant perpetrators.”
The report also importantly situates the intensification of genocide denial during a moment of a backlash to globalisation and an ascendant far-right, ultimately viewing these trends as intertwined.
“In the same way that Holocaust denial fuels right-wing violence against Jewish communities, historical revision of the genocide against Bosnian Muslims mobilises anti-Islamic elements of the global far-right,” it emphasises.
Halilovich underscores how Srebrenica has been widely adopted as an “ideological pillar by the far-right across the world” and “provided inspiration to the two largest massacres by white supremacists in recent times: Norway in 2011 and New Zealand in 2019.”
To achieve any significant pathway towards reconciliation in the face of an entrenched denial industry, must first mean coming to terms its normalisation. Only then can providing a scalable framework to combat the deep institutional and social acceptance of denial be rendered effective.
The report presents a list of recommendations to go about that arduous task.
The realm of language is important in itself: “genocide must not be trivialized or substituted for milder, more ambiguous terminology like ‘massacre’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’”
The importance of adopting a genocide denial law, already witnessed in many other countries, is a crucial and concrete legislative measure.
“Denial law has huge significance and needs to be declared as soon as possible,” says Mulaosmanovic. He added that “criminal law has to treat denial as a serious offence” and without it, would be a serious obstacle for the peace process.
Halilovich attributes this myopia to the political paralysis of the Bosnian state that emerged post-Dayton without a law against genocide denial due to the existence of free speech laws, which provide cover for hate speech.
These legal actions, while important, would need to occur in conjunction with sustained public education campaigns. Integrating Srebrenica genocide into higher education, for example, would help increase global literacy.
One of the most formidable obstacles to peace and reconciliation in Bosnia remains its education system, where the genocide is widely excluded from textbooks and school curricula, depriving generations of youth access to information about the crimes committed.
To tackle this, the report calls for political actors to “advocate for educational reform and the implementation of a standardised curriculum which includes the judicially established factual narrative of the Srebrenica genocide.”
Vigilance to instances of denial needs to be exhibited across all levels.
“Politicians, academics, journalists, NGOs, and religious authorities must overshadow the lies and misinformation peddled by revisionists…this entails not only speaking out in public condemnation of historical revisionism and divisive actions, but also supporting those individuals and organizations firmly entrenched in the war against denial,” the report adds.
For Halilovic, Srebrenica must be understood as a totalising, global event – one historicised as a crime against humanity, not “as some ‘local genocide’ against Muslims on Europe’s periphery.”
“Sanctioning genocide denial and triumphalism is not just a matter for the politically paralysed state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but must go hand in hand with combating racism and the politics of hatred that have been on the rise globally,” he says.
“In my view, this would be the best way to honour the victims of the last European genocide.”
Editor's note: the author confirms any perceived overlap with a passage from the article Wings of Denial is unintentional.