Pathology or opportunity?

The Bosnian Serb Commission on Srebrenica may well produce the usual ethnic-driven propaganda.  It does not have to.

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By David B. Kanin

An announcement from Banja Luka in early 2019 that Bosnian Serb officials had put together a supposedly objective group of international figures to revisit what is generally accepted as the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II was greeted largely with collective groans.  The Covid 19 virus has not stopped the work of this group, which at some point likely will turn out a result meeting expectations that remain low outside the narrow universe of Serbian ultranationalists, Russian propaganda hounds, and a few others. 

Why bring this up now, when the World is focused on other things and the Commission has yet to publicize its findings?  First, because the up-front bias of its employers is so transparent.  Dodik and other Serb nationalists are on record as denying any but rogue or marginal wrongdoing by Serbs throughout the wars of the 1990s. 

Second, any denial that what took place in Srebrenica was the mass murder of 7000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces under the supervision of Mladic and his officers would do real damage, reinforcing the mutual and reflexive deflection of crimes large and small using standard, well well-worn communal-based insults and tendentious narratives.

  • Typical of this pathology is the lame effort by Bosniak/Croat Federation Prime Minister Fadil Novalic and the largely Bosniak SDA to brush off accusations that Novalic and others engaged in shady dealing regarding overpriced Chinese respirators as an “attack against Bosniaks in general.”
  • Propagation of the fiction that Bosnian Serb forces were not guilty of mass murder at Srebrenica would undermine the efficacy of Serbian complaints over Croatian denials that the Ustache-led pro-Nazi World War II-era Croatia was guilty of genocide against Serbs, Jews, and others.  

Third, any whitewash of the crimes committed in Srebrenica would give Sputnik and other elements of Russia’s disinformation factory another rhetorical means of exploiting still-unresolved inter-communal politics and social relationships in the Balkans.  Moscow could once again shrug its shoulders, reject the fact of mass murder, and underscore the clear (if hate-laced) narratives offered by nationalists on all sides that contrast so strongly with the banal and bumbling admonitions and lectures that make up the messages of European Union spokespeople and Balkan-based “civil society.”

In short, the conventional wisdom is that Dodik and his acolytes put this Commission to work to exonerate Bosnian Serb commanders and forces from any wrongdoing, manufacture casuistic support for the notion that all sides in the conflicts in Bosnia in the 1990s were more or less equally at fault for any crimes committed during the fighting, and to use nationalistic narratives to further weaken a congenitally fractured Bosnia.  The authors of previous reports would be admonished for downplaying the victimization of Bosnian Serbs. Nasir Oric, commander of Bosniak forces defending the local population from Mladic’s determined effort to seize the Srebrenica enclave, would be painted as Mladic’s operational (or culpable) equivalent, or worse.  

Conventional wisdom occasionally is wise. As the Commission grinds on, Dodik continues to rely on his constituents’ defensiveness over having been branded with blame for the violence that followed the end of Yugoslavia, and to (re-) provoke inter-communal anger to maintain his authority and patronage interests. 

And so the fourth reason to write about this now – assuming at least some of those on this Commission really want to provide an honest and useful appraisal of the massacre – the Commission has an opportunity to show respect to the victims of still-raw crimes and to refuse to collaborate with Dodik’s narrow nationalist agenda.  This is possible even if these people recoil at using the word “genocide” to describe what happened in Srebrenica.

Let me be clear.  In my view the mass murder by Mladic’s forces at Srebrenica deserves the worse word we have to describe it, and “genocide” is that word.  Still – as I have written twice before for TransConflict – polemics over which horrific acts deserve that appellation and which do not have made the term almost meaningless and confuse what should be a focus on the facts of those crimes and efforts to pursue justice and/or reconciliation.  Hitler’s war against the Jews – the Holocaust – and the slaughter of Armenians by Turks (and Kurds) during World War I clearly deserve the label of Genocide as defined when the word came into international law in 1947.  Whether other cases of mass murder or such developments as the ongoing communal agonies of Muslim Rohingya also qualify as “genocide” I leave to the reader.  

What I am suggesting here is that if this Commission finds that Mladic and his thugs committed mass murder against their Bosniak captives in 1995, the question of whether its report includes the word “genocide” should not be the sole focus of reaction to it.  By all means, such an omission could and should come in for criticism.  But if this contingency comes to pass and the Commission’s report underscores the culpability of Mladic and his subordinates, it would be helpful if commentary does not lose sight of the larger issue, confirmation of who authored these crimes — whatever we call them.  If the Commissioners are honest and courageous enough to confound the cynical Big Man who hired them.  Their report then could become a jumping off point for renewed efforts to come to terms with the horrors of the 1990s and the legacies of conflicts in the Balkans so tragically –and criminally — conducted at that time and so poorly managed by local politicians and international overseers since.

I am aware how unlikely this outcome is.  The Commission may well just follow the usual nationalist script, exonerate Mladic and his acolytes, and confirm expectations of bias and an unfortunate agenda.  But now, before it finishes its work, this still is not entirely certain.  And that is a fifth reason for taking up the issue.

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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