Reviews Mass murder or genocide? Debates on atrocities continue

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2:2012, p 51-53
Published on on juni 27, 2012

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The unparalleled crimes of the Nazis have constituted the ultimate measure of genocide since World War II. The genocide perpetrated on the Jews was the first attempt to reshape history biologically. In Hannah Arendt’s words, the Nazis wanted to “decide which people had or had not the right to live on earth”. According to the UN Genocide Convention adopted in 1948, for a massacre to be defined as genocide, it must be possible to prove “intent” on the part of the perpetrators to “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such”, through one or more of five specified acts, such as killing members of the group or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction. It is not always easy to determine when such intent exists. Many indigenous peoples have gone under in the wake of colonialism, and we have no way of clearly determining whether this was the intent of the perpetrators.

Where should the line between ethnic cleansing and genocide be drawn? If the Nazis had been able to realize their plans to drive the Jews into the Belarusian swamps, where they would freeze or starve to death, would this have been ethnic cleansing or genocide? Was the Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed millions of lives, intentional genocide engineered by the British colonial power? And how should we judge the massacres and mass murders that have taken place closer to hand in our own time? With the civil war in the former Yugoslavia of 1992—1995 in particular, where ethnic groups that had once lived peacefully side by side suddenly became mortal enemies after having been sicced on each other by fanatical politicians, the problem of defining genocide has obvious relevance.

The question of what happened to the estimated 8,000 men who went missing from the Bosnian city of Srebrenica between the 11th and 19th of July 1995 is particularly controversial. Were they murdered? Did they fall in battle, or did the majority manage to escape? This is the subject of an anthology published last year under the editorship of Edward S. Herman, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, with a foreword by Phillip Corwin, the highest-ranking United Nations civilian official in Sarajevo when Srebrenica fell. The book builds on the earlier report presented in 2005 by The Srebrenica Research Group under Herman’s direction. The anthology authors (journalists, filmmakers, media scholars, and a law professor) question the accepted picture of the Yugoslav War. The main issue is whether the killing in Srebrenica was of sufficient magnitude to be classified as genocide or should instead be called a massacre. The authors are aware that they are walking through a minefield. Herman coolly expects to be accused of historical revisionism.

Despite the controversial subject, however, the authors arrive at surprisingly little that is new. Most of the information is familiar from Diana Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions (2003). Johnstone puts the Yugoslav War in its historical and international context with focus on the co-responsibility of Western powers for the tragic evolution of events in the Balkans. In her eagerness to de-demonize the Serbs, she trivializes the Srebrenica massacre as one incident of war among many others.

According to the anthology’s various authors, those who are mainly culpable in the Yugoslav tragedy are not found among the political leaders of Belgrade; blame is instead assigned to the interests of great powers outside the country.

The ambitions of Western powers to fill, at any cost, the political void that ensued after the fall of Soviet communism were decisive in the failure to resolve the conflict by diplomatic means. The presence of NATO in the Balkans, led by the newly reunited Germany, fanned the flames of smoldering nationalism in the constituent republics of Yugoslavia. German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Genscher persuaded the EU and the US to recognize Slovenia’s and Croatia’s declarations of independence, after which Bosnia declared independence following a referendum. Serbia and Montenegro then formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in a last-ditch attempt to hold together the Yugoslavia in which six republics, five nationalities, four languages, and three religions had been united by Tito after World War II. A compromise was reached in March 1992, negotiated by the Portuguese and known as the Lisbon Agreement, in conjunction with the referendum in Bosnia, which was boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs. If the agreement had been implemented, it would have brought about an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina divided into three independent cantons in a Swiss-like model. The agreement was accepted by the warring parties, but a couple of days later Bosnian Muslim president Alija Izetbegović withdrew his support at the urging of the United States. Two weeks later, the civil war was a fact.

NATO bombings of Bosnian Serb positions commenced after the Srebrenica massacre and a mortar attack on one of Sarajevo’s biggest commercial streets. The war ended with the peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, resulting in the Dayton Agreement signed in Paris in December 1995. The outcome was a Bosnian state divided into a Muslim entity and a Serbian entity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

The book sheds light on the geopolitical machinations that contributed to the outbreak of war, but the reader does not learn much about the internal causes of the civil war. Only a summary outline is given of the Yugoslav War in its entirety with its various areas of conflict, especially the ethnic and economic. The actual objective of the Serbian policy, other than holding the nation together, is not explained. The only thing said about Serbian nationalism is that the notion of a Great Serbia was a myth fabricated by Western powers.

The purpose of the book, of course, is not to explicate all the ins and outs of the war. The authors’ aim is instead to understand the war based on the event that contributed most to the stigmatization of the Serbs, the Srebrenica massacre. This narrow focus, however, results in stultifying monotony and many overlaps in the text. The same factual and theoretical arguments are repeated in the various articles.

Everyone speaks in the same voice and everyone is touchingly in agreement on the main points. Thus, there is no real discussion from different perspectives, which would have lent the text much greater credibility. It becomes difficult to shake the impression of a partisan brief, an argument for the defense that is at least as one-sided as the indictment against which the authors polemicize. Instead of being demonized, the Serbs must be depicted as victims.

The book illustrates the difficulty of comparing different kinds of evil without being sucked into the swamp of guilt mitigation, where the crimes of one side are presumed to weigh less heavily due to the crimes of the other side. Comparing different kinds of bloody deeds can easily end up becoming a macabre counting of dead bodies in an attempt to make one’s chosen side look a little better.

Corwin makes this moral dilemma obvious from the start in the foreword to the book, where he maintains that the Red Cross estimate of the death toll in Srebrenica is highly exaggerated. According to him, the figure should be revised downwards from 8,000 to 800, a drastic reduction. At the same time, he emphasizes that thousands of Serbs were murdered during the war in Bosnia. From Herman’s relativized perspective, what happened in Srebrenica was a fully understandable, albeit illegitimate, act of retribution for earlier injustices, a crime among crimes.

The worst war crimes were committed, according to Herman, by the Croats in Krajina and Slavonia, two Serb enclaves in Croatia. In the months after the Srebrenica massacre, at least 2,500 Serbs are alleged to have been killed during Operation Storm. Unlike the Bosnian Serbs, the Croats did not spare women and children. In addition, 250,000 Serbs were driven from their homes in Krajina in what Herman calls the largest single act of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars. He bases this information on sources that include a Serbian professor, Milivoje Ivanišević, whose book Srebrenica July 1995: In Search of Truth (2010) was launched as the true story of Srebrenica from the Serbian nationalist perspective.

Herman and George Bogdanich also deny that the Bosnian Serbs were guilty of the repeated shelling of civilian targets in Sarajevo, including the shelling of the city’s marketplace in February 1994 that killed 68 and wounded hundreds more. Actually, they claim, the shellings were executed by the Bosnians themselves to arouse the sympathies of the world for their cause. The evidence for this astonishing new interpretation is made up of various literature references and one newspaper article, none of which is, any more than Ivanišević’s statements, subjected to any rigorous source-critical examination.

The foremost conspiracy theory in the book concerns the retreat of the Bosnian Muslim army from Srebrenica the day before the Serbs’ advance. Why did they fall back and leave the population to their fate?

The Muslim force is said to have been numerically superior, with about 5,000 men compared to about 200 Serbs. The generally accepted explanation is that the Bosnian Serbs fell back because in April 1993 the UN had declared Srebrenica one of three Safe Areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina and thus they assumed it would be free from any armed attack. Following an agreement between the warring armies, a UN peacekeeping force of 400 Dutch troops had been installed in Srebrenica. There was thus good reason to presume that the population of the city enjoyed adequate protection. And after General Ratko Mladić gave his word as an officer and a gentleman that no one would be hurt, the Bosnian Serb Army could march in to the city without encountering resistance from the UN troops.

In imitation of Johnstone, the authors of the book claim that Izetbegović allowed the Bosnian Muslim Commander Naser Orić to pull back his troops in full knowledge of the massacre that would follow. The alleged reason was that the Muslims had tried for several years to induce the United States to intervene. President Clinton is then alleged to have declared that it would take at least 5,000 dead Bosnians to legitimize armed US intervention. In other words, the Srebrenica massacre is alleged to have been a pawn sacrifice. The people of the city were sacrificed to give the US a pretext for military intervention.

This might be the book’s weakest point. How does this explanation fit with the other arguments? On the one hand, the authors question whether any major mass executions ever happened in Srebrenica. On the other hand, they present a hypothesis that passes the burden of guilt to the Bosnian Muslims and suddenly we are talking about a huge massacre. The authors seem not to have realized that the one hypothesis falsifies the other.

There is generally a discrepancy in how the book treats witness testimony. Those who have testified about Serbian abuses are put under a critical microscope, while those who testify in defense of the Serbs are treated uncritically, to say the least. During the summer of 1993, Serb, Croat, and Muslim internment camps were established in Bosnia, but Herman questions the existence of Serb prison camps where an unusually large number of people are alleged to have died, having either starved to death or been executed. He refers to a film by the German journalist Thomas Deichmann. The film about the Serb prison camp Trnopolje in northern Bosnia — The Picture that Fooled the World — has been thoroughly examined in connection with the trials of the prison guards. The picture said to have fooled the world was presented as that of an emaciated prisoner, Fikret Alić, standing behind barbed wire, which was meant to conjure images of a Nazi concentration camp. According to Deichmann, the picture was a fraud. For this reason, Herman gives no credence to Alić’s testimony before the Hague Tribunal about the treatment of prisoners in the camp. Nor does he remark upon former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavšić’s acknowledgement before the same tribunal of responsibility for the establishment of these camps and the conditions there. The tribunal convicted her in 2003 of crimes against humanity, to which she pled guilty.

The admission by the Bosnian Serb government in Republika Srpska in June 2004 that at least 7,000 people had been murdered in Srebrenica is airily dismissed. Jonathan Rooper, former BBC reporter, claims on the basis of a single newspaper article in The Guardian, without the slightest of source-critical deliberations, that this admission was coerced under threat of political and economic sanctions by the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paddy Ashdown.

It would, however, be unfair to highlight only the book’s weaknesses — the inadequate source criticism, the conspiracy theories — without mentioning the critical discussion that is also presented, such as Bogdanich’s section on Srebrenica’s status during the civil war. This strategically located city near the Bosnian-Serbian border had long been Naser Orić’s base, from which bloody attacks were visited upon Serb villages starting in the spring of 1992 until the Serbs took the city. Today there can be no doubt that Bosnian, Croat, and Serb forces committed horrific abuses against the civilian population in eastern Bosnia. It is, however, remarkable that the UN-led International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) established in The Hague in May 1993 did not indict Orić until 2003, and then for crimes carrying lesser punishments than the charges against his Serb mirror image Mladić, for crimes in direct connection with the Srebrenica massacre.

The most interesting chapters in the book, those written by George Szamuely and the Canadian law professor Michael Mandel, discuss the aftermath during The Hague Tribunal. The ICTY, which should not be confused with the International Court in The Hague, which rules on matters related to international law, claimed to follow the tradition established in the Nuremberg trials after World War II. This time it was not the Nazi leadership being held accountable for crimes against humanity, but Serb political leaders and generals. Milošević is alleged to have planned ethnic cleansing in order to create a Greater Serbia. According to the tribunal, the Srebrenica massacre could not be compared to other incidental by-products of war objectives and was a genocide of Hitlerian proportions.

Neither Izetbegović nor Croat President Franjo Tuđman was indicted. But Croat General Ante Gotovina was indicted for expelling 250,000 Serbs from the Krajina area during Operation Storm in 1995, but not until 2001, two years after The New York Times wrote about this ethnic cleansing. NATO’s role in the context was essentially ignored.

Szamuely is skeptical of witness testimonies of Serbian mass executions, since they always recount the same story. The Serbs surround a village, pound it with heavy artillery for days, then march in and round up the villagers. They then take away the women, children, and the elderly and execute the adult men in the nearby forests. Invariably, one person survives by pretending to be dead or having bodies fall on top of him and later comes forward as a witness. But Szamuely’s criticism also becomes a constantly repeated litany whose foundation is that credence cannot be given to the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution because the protection of witness anonymity cannot be verified. Cross-examinations have also been limited so as not to torment people who had been subject to traumatic experiences.

Szamuely is particularly scathing about the prosecution’s key witness, Dražen Erdemović, a Bosnian Croat mercenary soldier who had served on various occasions for all the warring parties. He was part of the Serbian force that took Srebrenica and claimed to have participated in a Serbian death squad of seven men, who allegedly killed 1,200 adult men in four hours. For this he was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, which was later reduced to five years. The reason for the remarkably lenient sentence, according to Szamuely, is that he was the key witness for the prosecution against Karadžić and Milošević. Acting as his own attorney, Milošević cross-examined Erdemović, but was not allowed to pursue his questioning.

In April 2004, General Radislav Krstić, commander of the Bosnian Serb Drina corps, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for aiding and abetting the genocide in Srebrenica, thus becoming the first person since World War II to be convicted of genocide in Europe. Mandel argues that the executions in Srebrenica, which he estimates at 4,000 at the most (thus considerably higher than the number surmised by Corwin and Herman) should instead be defined as mass murder. In that connection, his argument is in alignment with that of the Israeli Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Elie Wiesel.

In an article in Newsweek in April 1999, Wiesel protested the comparison between the Serb mass murder and the Nazi genocide: “Does anyone believe that Milošević and his accomplices seriously planned to exterminate all the Bosnians, all the Albanians, all the Muslims in the world?” he asked. The women, children, and elderly of Srebrenica were removed to safety, the opposite of what happened in Auschwitz—Birkenau. Despite objections of this kind, the ICTY chose to stand by the relatively loose definition of genocide provided in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which includes killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group of people in one area. The ICTY also relied on a 1982 UN General Assembly Resolution that the murder of at least 800 Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila was an act of genocide.

One can certainly concede Mandel’s point that the burden of guilt was not equitably distributed in the ICTY’s rulings. Srebrenica was probably not the only massacre of a genocidal nature committed during the Yugoslav War. But that does not make Srebrenica a lesser evil. Instead, it begs the question of where the line should be drawn between war crimes and genocide and why we close our eyes to certain crimes and not others.

Mandel is also right that Serb crimes under international law do not follow the horrific patterns of the Nazi Holocaust. One may, however, very well doubt the adequacy of a definition of genocide tailored to the proportions of the Jewish extermination in World War II. When that standard is applied, there is considerable risk that the term will become virtually useless in light of the exceptional nature of the Holocaust, and most crimes, with the possible exception of Rwanda in 1994, would not measure up. The alternative is a broader definition of genocide when it comes to the motives and magnitude of crimes, so that it would include not only all the outrages of colonialism but also massacres like those in Sabra and Shatila, Srebrenica, Krajina, and elsewhere.

The book poses many questions that cast doubt upon the accepted picture of the Yugoslav War in general and the Srebrenica massacre in particular. It is, however, difficult to form an opinion about all the information and judge which sources are credible and which merely pass on rumors or out-and-out lies. The extensive documentation — 626 fulsome notes — are not much help, as the truth value of the sources, whatever that might be, was not examined. The most problematic issue is that the answers given all point in the same direction.

The book is intended to trigger debate, of course, but it does not reflect the full spectrum of debate and allows only one side, the Serbian, to speak. Opposing voices are absent, which is a major drawback in a book that purports to show what really happened in Srebrenica. ≈

  • Dafebs

    the reason why only one side is allowed to speak in the book is probably the fact that there are hundreds of other books letting the other side speak. So if there are on one side so many other books letting the one side speak, as opposed to one book presenting the Serb side only, then so be it. The media has done its job perfectly to represent one side only, and no one has asked ”where is the other side”?

Edward S. Herman (ed.) The Srebrenica Massacre Evidence, Context, Politics. Foreword by Phillip Corwin, 2011, 300 pages