The struggle to control the term “genocide” has become a contested conceptual space, turning cautionary lessons in how bad we can be into disputes over just how bad things really were.

By David B. Kanin

One of Thomas Jefferson’s most often cited maxims was that “the earth belongs always to the living generation.” Jefferson urged a new world to avoid the inherited aristocratic structures and incessant warfare that he believed kept the old one’s tyrannical systems in place and held back human progress. Living at the cusp of the nationalist era, he did not have to consider the soon-to-be constructed rivalries of national memories and atrocities – the latter witnessed, recorded, and catalogued – which have ensured that in our current world the dead often have as much purchase as the living.

The Third Reich, with its afterlife in law, entertainment, and the mass media that never seems to end, has reinforced this condition. As points of comparison, “Hitler” and “Nazi” have become clichés called into use when someone is of a mind to put someone else in the worst light possible. Similarly, genocide” has become a blanket epithet used to vilify (often enemy) perpetrators; it also serves as a slogan helping to pay homage to murdered (often co-national) victims. After World War II genocide gained legal status, and certainly stands as a criminal category used by human rights activists and a burgeoning international prosecutorial system dedicated to preventing horrors, if possible, and to enforcing justice, if not. However, the mixture of this concept with rival communal memories, nationalism, and traditional categories of diplomacy and power politics does some harm even while the legal process attempts to do some good.

The problem is that – reasonably enough – many who have suffered through the murder of loved ones in the context of mass slaughter are not satisfied to have these horrors classified as anything but genocide. It is not enough to speak of mass murder, “crimes against humanity” (another legal neologism), or anything else connoting something less than the superlative category in the class of the worst possible human activities. Any effort to demote horrific events to something less than genocide becomes a new crime against the survivors and the loved ones of those who did not survive.

The necessary identification of the Holocaust as genocide puts a unique semantic fence around the effort to wipe out European Jewry. This is appropriate because of the stated intention, unique industrial evolution, and bestial organization involved in those intentional horrors. Regarding other cases of mass murder, however, the struggle to control the term “genocide” has become a contested conceptual space. Arguments among politicians, officials, lawyers, and commentators turn what should be cautionary lessons in how bad we can be into disputes over just how bad things really were.

Turks and Armenians currently are getting the genocide headlines, with a Constitutional Council decision apparently invalidating legislation in France (which has had its own moral tussle over the extent to which its wartime government contributed to the Holocaust) that would have made it a crime to deny that the mass slaughter perpetrated by Ottoman forces against Armenians during World War I constitutes “genocide.” A Turkish Minister provocatively denied this genocide while on a trip to Switzerland, which has a similar law, and declared “let them come arrest me.” Swiss authorities prepared to do just that. Recent news stories have repeated competing Armenian and Turkish versions of what happened during 1915-16. Rival Armenian and Turkish lobbying groups in various countries have gotten down to work. Azeri commentators have supported the Turks for parochial reasons, blurring the issue.

The good news is that this means the victims are not forgotten. Nevertheless, while this may lead to some sense of justice concerning the fate of the dead, it is hard to see what it does to promote any sort of reconciliation among the living. To be sure, various human rights experts conduct workshops and declare lessons learned, but the competition goes on to capture the word, apply it to an adversary, and reject its application to one’s self.

In the post-Yugoslav Balkans, the contest over the ownership of “genocide” often is linked with the mass murder of thousands of Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb troops in 1995. Mladic’s trial will legally define his actions, but in the meantime Serbia, the Bosnian Serb Republic, legal authorities in the notional Bosnian central state and in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, and relatives of the murdered determined not to permit any downgrading of the definition of Bosnian Serb culpability use genocide as a semantic and moral football. The magnitude of what happened at Srebrenica sometimes overshadows the other murders, rapes and management of prisoners’ camps that accompanied the worst violence in Europe since World War II. The prospect that Serbs will gain control of local government in Srebrenica in elections later this year has reopened old wounds.

Each trial in The Hague pits the defendants’ national supporters against the victims’ community of loss – trials closer to home of lesser known figures often do not attract as much attention. Some Serbs complain the international legal process unfairly vilifies them; other groups insist Serbian perpetrators have not been punished firmly enough. At times, the formerly warring factions fight battles over whether ambiguous events qualify as war crimes. The Bosnian Serb Republic, which labors under the accusation of some of its Bosnian “partners” that it is a product of genocide, will not let go of the killings of Yugoslav soldiers on Dobrovoljacka Street in Sarajevo in early May 1992. That event was an awful part of a chaotic day in which Alija Izetbegovic was kidnapped and the Yugoslav military commander found himself trapped. A Bosnian Serb spokesman labelled an international prosecutor’s decision last month to suspend the case for lack of evidence as “illegal, tendentious, and biased.” Two decades after the event, there apparently still is no room for a protagonist to acknowledge that someone across the line might just be making a professional, if difficult, decision.

What is the optimal relationship between remembering the victims and developing some sort of process by which living generations in the Balkans can forge constructive relationships? History really does not help much when it comes to this problem. The Nuremberg example sometimes pointed to as the exemplary model actually was an exceptional case in which a portion of the perpetrators – in the emerging West Germany – accepted Germany’s criminal culpability. Communist East Germany never acknowledged any responsibility for the crimes of Fascism (which it insisted only implicated the Fascists).

The Asian counterpart to Nuremberg was an example of the more common post-Tribunal process. Japan buried its war criminals with honor, and some politicians continue to visit the spirits of those commemorated at the Yasukuni shrine. Only decades after the War did Japan grudgingly acknowledge a general responsibility for the acts of its Japanese war criminals, but its apology satisfied few of its victims; relations between Japan and both China and Korea remain tainted by contested versions of what happened.

The West’s Tribunal model incorporates definitions of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other categories in a context containing a fair amount of self-righteousness. In the Balkans, European and American overseers – whose countries benefited centrally by committing all the acts they later defined as crimes and now prohibit others from practicing – permit only rhetoric and actions accommodating their one-size-fits-all teleology of civic, multicultural Democracy. Trials run by international legal bureaucrats may provide an element of justice, but whether they stoke or diminish communal anger is, at best, debatable. Recent books by Jelena Subotic and Lara Nettelfield offer contrasting and interesting views on how the work of the International Criminal Tribunal on former Yugoslavia has affected the region.

NGOs and local activists usefully pay attention to alternatives to Tribunal justice. Truth and Reconciliation commissions seem to have had some constructive impact in Rwanda, but disagreement over who shot down that country’s (Hutu) President in 1994 and allegations of poor behavior by its current (Tutsi) Administration remain on the table. This model has been tried in various Balkan localities with mixed results. It is hard to tell whether direct communication between perpetrators and victims can work constructively while at the same time highly politicized public disputes continue between victims and defenders of the iconic monsters on display in The Hague. It is a good thing that theorists and practitioners continue to consider what combination of Tribunal, Truth and Reconciliation, and other processes might protect the interests of both the living and the dead.

Every now and then something happens that gives cause for a little hope. Recently, Bosniak military veterans announced they would share some of their pension money with Bosnian Serb counterparts. These groups share material interests and a common belief they are being treated badly by the societies they defended (and, no matter the fiction of “Bosnia,” which remain plural). Bosnian Serb veterans expressed surprise, but were grateful for the support and said they would behave the same if the situation was reversed. This communication across the lines was particularly constructive because people who played a central role in the battles of the nineties humanized each other and avoided the poisonous argument over whether the Serb Republic is a congenital product of genocide.

It would be helpful if this positive moment leads to regularized contacts between groups in the two entities who share interests and a willingness to improve inter-communal relations. Such practical arrangements would not provide a magic solution for the many problems inherent in as artificial a construction as the current Bosnia. However, they might at least create constructive experiences in the present that eventually might enable the trust necessary to reconsider usefully whatever people decide to call the atrocities of the past.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

To learn more about the Balkans, please refer to TransConflict’s reading list series by clicking here.

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