Justice in Bosnia after Mladić
By David Pettigrew
July 10, 2011
The arrest of General Ratko Mladić is an important step on the long path to justice for the victims and the survivors of the genocide against Bosnia’s Muslims (Bosniaks) that was perpetrated from 1992 to 1995 by Serbian and Bosnian Serb forces. However, the expectation that Mladić’s arrest will “close a chapter” --as stated by Serbian President Tadić-- on the war of aggression, or open a “new chapter” for Serbia, fails to recognize that Mladić’s genocidal legacy lives on in the form of the political entity known as Republika Srpska.
Between 1991 and 1992 Radovan Karadžić’s nationalistic Serbian Democratic Party brought about the creation of Republika Srpska in response to the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina was preparing a referendum on independence as a multicultural nation. The name Republika Srpska means "Serbian Republic." Unfortunately, this ethnically denominated “Serbian Republic” was declared within the borders of Bosnia and included eastern Bosnia where the Bosniaks constituted, in most locations, the majority of the inhabitants. The creation of Republika Srpska was to entail the forcible displacement of the Bosniaks from within its self-declared territory through terror, rape, and murder, which in some cases included wanton mass murder. In July 1995 alone, over 8,000 men and boys were murdered at Srebrenica in an act that has been declared genocide by two international courts.
Srebrenica was not the only place where Bosniaks were targeted as such and murdered en masse. Additional atrocities and murders occurred throughout the territory of Republika Srpska between 1992 and 1995. In Višegrad, for example, on two separate occasions in June of 1992 (on Pionirska Street and in the Bikavac neighborhood), women and children were forced into houses that were set on fire. They perished in the flames. Further, an estimated 3,000 were murdered on and around the Ottoman bridge in Višegrad and thrown into the Drina River. In August of 2010 I accompanied the Bosnian government’s exhumation team to Višegrad. Work on a nearby dam caused the river level to drop and it was finally possible to exhume the bones of the victims from the riverbed. We found the remains of many of the victims and identification is in progress.
In addition, hundreds of villages in eastern Bosnia were destroyed as part of the Bosnian Serb strategy, making return and repopulation by the Bosniaks virtually impossible. Approximately 1,000 mosques were destroyed in Republika Srpska, and in some cases, Serbian Orthodox churches were constructed directly upon the ruins. In one case, a Serbian Orthodox church was constructed on a Bosniak woman’s land without her permission and it still remains to this day. More than 350 mass graves that hold the remains of the Bosniak victims have been discovered within Republika Srpska. The perpetrators tried to hide their crimes by moving the remains to new locations. In the process, the bodies were dismembered, making the process of exhumation and identification tragically difficult.
Indisputably, the entity Republika Srpska was founded upon a genocidal ideology, maintained through the barbarity of genocidal acts and ultimately legitimized by the Dayton Peace Accords 1995. The surviving founding members of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić, Biljana Plavšić, and Momčilo Krajišnik, are either on trial --having been charged with genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war-- or have already been convicted and sentenced for their role in the war crimes. However, the current President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik denies the genocide at Srebrenica and speaks openly of secession from Bosnia. In other words, in spite of the arrest of Mladić, Republika Srpska continues to be, for Bosnia’s Muslims, a dehumanizing zone of exclusion. Mladić’s legacy --Republika Srpska-- remains intact.
One of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke’s greatest regrets, as the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, was the recognition and the naming of Republika Srpska. He feared that such recognition and such a name would legitimize --if not reward-- their genocidal aggression. Hence, to do justice to victims of the genocide against the Bosniak civilians (Bosnian Muslims), the arrest of Mladić must serve as a reminder to the European and international diplomatic community that it is time to reunify Bosnia through constitutional reform. It is indeed unseemly for President Tadić to reduce Mladić’s arrest to the final step in Serbia’s strategy for its entrance to the European Union. The Copenhagen Criteria of 1993 call for those seeking membership in the European Union to respect human rights and the rule of law not only in their own countries but also in association with others. Serbia must now be called upon to denounce President Dodik’s rhetoric of genocide denial and secession and to fully support the reunification of Bosnia.
David Pettigrew, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Southern CT State University in New Haven, CT.
His report on the exhumations in Višegrad can be found on his website.
Balkan Witness editor's note:Balkan Witness is pleased to publish this article, though we take exception to the introductory thought in the final paragraph. The writer's emphasis is the opposite of what it ought to be in evaluating Holbrooke's historical role. Regardless of Holbrooke's personal feelings, it his was job to craft a peace agreement that legalized and legitimized the partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that is what he did. Holbrooke's crucial participation in the legalization of the partition of BiH is more significant to our criticism of the existence of the RS than are his feelings of reservation about it. The writer calls for Bosnian constitutional reform to resolve the problems created by the Dayton constitution. That call should be made without implicitly exculpating Holbrooke in the process.
We also observe, and we expect that the writer would agree, that the Dayton constitution itself built in a fatal obstacle to reform by creating a system whose modification depended on consensus between three corrupt ethno-nationalist political structures. Those three parties won't agree to give up their mutually advantageous positions to the benefit of a civil democracy. The fundamental problem is that rights and power are based on ethnicity, not simply upon citizenship. That was the goal of the elites on all three sides during the war, and, in a sense, during the war they collaborated in achieving that goal - and now they're collaborating on preserving the power they've acquired through that achievement. So the expectation that those elites will allow a reform that will remove the source (ethnic separation) of their power is not realistic.