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Serbia Can No Longer Whitewash Its Role in the Bosnian Genocide
By Hamza Karcic 
June 7, 2023 

Three decades of slow, painful but vital work bringing Bosnian genocide perpetrators to justice have now ended, with the convictions of Serbia's wartime spy chief and a notorious military commander. How should we assess The Hague Tribunal’s legacy, its shortcomings, and its message for war crimes deniers today?

On May 31, 2023, an appeals court in The Hague handed down a judgment confirming what every Bosnian knows, but is under constant pressure from toxic revisionism: that Serbia’s security service was involved in the war in Bosnia and that its top security chiefs helped commit appalling crimes against civilians in Bosnia. 

The Appeals Chamber of The International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, an awkwardly-named institution established by the United Nations Security Council in 2010, is a successor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), with the objective of finalizing its work. 

The ICTY, known widely as The Hague Tribunal, was an ad-hoc international court formed in 1993 to prosecute suspects involved in crimes committed in Bosnia and the rest of what was once Yugoslavia.  

The ICTY functioned from 1993 until 2017. During this time, the Tribunal indicted 161 individuals, including former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In 2001, a top Mladic deputy – Radislav Krstic – was found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica and sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment. 

The top echelon of the Bosnian Serb wartime leadership was not only indicted, but also convicted by the Tribunal. Karadzic was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. Similarly, his military chief Mladic, too, was convicted of genocide and given a life sentence. Biljana Plavsic, a former professor, evaded a genocide conviction after having claimed remorse for her wartime activities. 

In other words, the key founding fathers of what is today the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, one of the two administrative entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, have all been convicted by The Hague Tribunal. 

Apart from these convictions, a looming question for years has been whether the Tribunal would find top officials from Serbia itself responsible for crimes committed in Bosnia, and thereby confirm Belgrade's role in the war crimes. 

Milosevic died in 2006 as the case against him was ongoing. In 2007, the International Court of Justice confirmed the Srebrenica genocide and Serbia’s failure to prevent it. But Belgrade got off the hook for direct responsibility. 

For years, Belgrade denied its role in the war and crimes across Bosnia. In fact, over the past decade, there has been a sustained campaign aimed at changing the narrative about the war with the aim of whitewashing its role. Furthermore, a number of war criminals have found refuge in Serbia, including Novak Djukic, who was responsible for the shelling of the Bosnian city of Tuzla and massacring 71 young people in May 1995. 

Now, just over 31 years since Bosnian Serb forces, aided and abetted by Serbia proper, started their rebellion in the newly-independent Bosnia in spring 1992, the Residual Mechanism handed down its verdict last week. 

The Appeals Chamber found that the Head of the State Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia Jovica Stanisic and his top aide Frano Simatovic were a part of a “a joint criminal enterprise … and that it had a common criminal purpose to forcibly and permanently remove the majority of non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.” 

They were both found “liable as members of a joint criminal enterprise for crimes committed by various Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, in Bijeljina, Zvornik, Bosanski Šamac, Doboj, and Sanski Most and for crimes committed in 1995 in Trnovo and Sanski Most. It also found them responsible for a murder committed in Daljska Planina, Croatia, in June 1992.” Both were sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. 

The ruling is a positive, but insufficient, step in ascertaining the full scale of Belgrade’s involvement in the war in Bosnia. What is glaringly absent from this ruling is a genocide conviction for the two intelligence officials. 

The sentences for 72-year-old Stanisic and 73-year-old Simatovic are grotesquely lenient given the scale and scope of the crimes they oversaw. Still, the ruling is more important than the punishment. This case will go down in history as one in which the direct involvement of Belgrade’s top security officials in crimes committed in Bosnia was confirmed by an international judicial institution. 

Furthermore, this verdict will be crucial in writing the history of the 1990s in Bosnia and this part of Southeast Europe. And it can serve as a brake on the rising revisionism in the region. It is little wonder that Serbia’s media completely ignored the ruling. 

Following last week’s judgement, the Residual Mechanism has delivered its final say. This marks an end to The Hague Tribunal’s verdicts on former Yugoslavia. Three decades after its establishment, scholarly attention now turns to assessing the Tribunal’s legacy. 

Four major shortcomings stand out. 

First, the Tribunal could not hand down death penalties. While no punishment is sufficient for convicted genocidaires responsible for the deaths of thousands, a death penalty should not have been ruled out. For the planners and executioners of the Bosnian genocide, spending years in the relative comfort of prisons in countries of Western Europe was a grossly inadequate punishment for their vicious crimes. 

Secondly, the Tribunal was inexplicably lenient. Take the case of Drazen Erdemovic, who served in the Bosnian Serb Army as a member of the 10th Sabotage Detachment. After the capture of Srebrenica in July 1995, Erdemovic was a member of the killing squads at the Pilica farm near Srebrenica. He confessed to have personally executed 70 Bosniaks. Erdemović pleaded guilty and received a prison term of just five years. 

Thirdly, convicted war criminals have been able to get early releases. Former top Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic was released in 2009 for good behavior after having served two-thirds of an 11-year sentence. A notorious war criminal from the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad named Mitar Vasiljevic walked free in 2010 after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence. He was given a hero’s welcome in Visegrad, which Serb forces – from Bosnia and Serbia – had "cleansed" of its Muslim population during the war. 

On top of lenient sentences, early releases proved that perpetrators paid a small price for their crimes. What is more, convictions at The Hague produced no real remorse on the part of perpetrators, and certainly not on the part of their defenders in Serbia or Republika Srpska. 

Fourthly, the Tribunal engaged in a minimization of the Bosnian genocide committed across the country, so that it was limited to the genocide committed in Srebrenica in July 1995. This became known as the “municipalization” of the Bosnian genocide. 

Contrary to academically-established truth, the Tribunal’s judicially-established truth set an artificially high benchmark for proving a genocide. Raphael Lemkin would have been shocked at how judicial procedures came to undermine the ideals for which he struggled. 

This minimization of genocide served as a convenient tool for genocide deniers to claim that Bosniaks killed outside Srebrenica, before or after July 1995, were not genocide victims. What of Bosniaks murdered in Visegrad, Foca, Gorazde? What of the victims of the siege of Sarajevo? What of Bosniaks murdered in camps in Prijedor? 

For all its shortcomings, the Tribunal did succeed in one key aspect: an international judicial institution established the truth, albeit minimally. For a small nation like Bosniaks, this is an improvement which stands in contrast to the largely unacknowledged and unrecognized suffering in previous cycles of violence in the past century. 

In the absence of the Tribunal, much of what we now know about the machinery of genocide would have remained unknown. In fact, the current rampant genocide denial in Bosnia and Serbia would be even far more widespread had there been no trials at The Hague. 

For the civilians in other countries, not least Ukraine, currently targeted by war crimes, the slow, painful but necessary process of bringing perpetrators to justice is just as salient. 

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

Originally published at https://balkaninsight.com/2023/06/07/will-the-united-states-abandon-kosovo/ 


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