Genocide denial has comfortably situated itself in mainstream discourse after a systematic effort to minimise the crimes committed against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.
On 10 October 2019, the Swedish Academy announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature would go to Peter Handke. The decision sent shockwaves across much of the Balkans.
The Austrian author is a Slobodan Milosevic apologist and Bosnian genocide denier. Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon called Handke the "Bob Dylan of Genocide Apologists."
To many, the Swedish Academy conferring such an award to a genocide denier marked a new chapter in the mainstreaming of denial. American journalist Peter Maass who covered the war in the 1990s did an outstanding job of explaining the story behind the Swedish Academy's scandalous decision.
Bosnian genocide denial has taken many forms from public statements to that effect by politicians to TikTok. But the denial started as early as the genocide did, in 1992. In fact, over the last three decades, there have been four identifiable stages of genocide denial.
Stage 1: Denial through euphemism
Starting in the spring of 1992, the term "civil war" was introduced by Serb nationalists and picked up by some Western observers. This term relegated the genocide committed by Bosnian Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims to a mere "civil war". Along with "civil war", the term "ethnic cleansing" was invented and applied to Bosnia by journalists and politicians alike.
The sole purpose of the term was to forestall the use of the term genocide lest it mobilise the international community or generate public outcry in support of Bosnians. Through this, Raphael Lemkin's legacy and the reason he advocated for the Genocide Convention was being cancelled out.
The supreme irony is that ethnic cleansing, introduced as a euphemism, has over the years evolved into an established academic term. It is a testament to the legacy and the success of the first-generation genocide deniers.
In fact, journalists and analysts who subscribed to the notions of a civil war and ethnic cleansing turned out to be those opposed to an international military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Bosnia. Denial through euphemisms is now mostly present in some academic and NGO circles in the Balkans and western Europe.
Stage 2: Denial through localisation
The second stage of genocide denial begins in the early 2000s. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) both established judicial truth in handing down genocide verdicts.
The major shortcoming of these court verdicts was that they narrowed the scale and scope of the three-and-a-half year genocide to a few days in July in Srebrenica in 1995. As some observers have pointed out, the only part of the genocide which was judicially established was that which could not be openly denied.
While establishing judicial truth, the notion of a genocide in Srebrenica – as opposed to a genocide perpetrated against Bosnians in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 – took hold. This idea of a localised genocide was inexplicably accepted by a number of people in Bosnia and is now present in everyday discourse. The Bosnian genocide through this stage of denial essentially became a municipal genocide in Srebrenica.
Both the ICTY and the ICJ set an exceptionally high benchmark for confirming a genocide. By insisting essentially on a paper trail that would show a clear-cut intention, both of these judicial institutions have enabled future perpetrators of genocide to rest assured that unless they put their statement of purpose in writing, any future court following the line and logic of ICTY will be hard-pressed to hand down a full-fledged court verdict on genocide.
The notion of a 'genocide in Srebrenica only' provided an opening for genocide deniers – local, regional and international – to seize and whitewash all the other crimes of genocide committed before July 1995. The localisation of genocide established by international courts became a pathway to denial.
Stage 3: Denial through postmodernist discourse
The third stage began some ten years ago. A variety of actors – with varying degrees of academic and media reach – began denying the bare minimum established by the ICTY. If the ICTY minimised the genocide to a few days in July, the third stage is the denial of this minimum of minimums and is taken up by individuals from entry-level academic beginners to far more sophisticated deniers. The latter are present in academia, media and the NGO world in the region and have employed postmodernist thinking and discourse in the service of genocide denial.
Frequently supported by various international foundations, the sophisticated deniers employed new terms including "alternative narratives", "multiple truths", "multiple narratives" and so on and so forth. These relegate a genocide to just one of many narratives.
While the open deniers such as Serbian far-right politician Vojislav Seselj are more provocative, the sophisticated deniers are far more damaging because their influence is far more pervasive. Some local historians and researchers in Bosnia joined the postmodernist bandwagon in joint research projects that sought to write joint histories or that sought to offer multiple narratives about the war and genocide in the 1990s. They either became unwitting accomplices or they simply failed to grasp the essence of postmodernist denial.
Stage 4: Denial through mainstreaming
The latest stage kicked off in December 2019 when the Swedish Academy decided to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke. This marked the latest stage of denial and the Swedish Academy's active role in it.
Up until December 2019, deniers were for the most part on the fringes of society – where they rightfully belong. But, with Handke, deniers are being brought in from the cold and have become welcome in the mainstream. The Swedish Academy has enabled the migration of fringe deniers to the mainstream. In essence, the fourth stage can be summarised simply as mainstreaming.
These four stages evolved sequentially but their defining features are now present simultaneously. The effort to maintain and preserve the historical truth about the Bosnian genocide is therefore shaping up as a major priority for Bosnian and international scholars, journalists and policymakers.
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