Political Leaders Who Deny War Crimes


In 1991, Yugoslavia began to break up along ethnic lines in what would become a series of conflicts and wars of independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most diverse region in all of Yugoslavia, so when they announced their independence in 1992, it quickly became engulfed in the conflict between the Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs held a preemptive referendum in 1992 and declared a state in January of 1992, Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska’s leader, Radovan Karadzic, garnered support from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), which at the time was then a rump state consisting of Serbia and Montenegro. After Srpska declared their independence, Bosnian Serbs were transferred from the Yugoslav army to the control of Ratko Mladic putting Bosniaks and Croats at a severe disadvantage. The Bosnian War was characterized by its brutality, with soldiers and civilians targeted through massacres, mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, and torture. The height of the devastation occurred in what would be later the Srebrenica genocide when over eight-thousand Bosniak men and boys were killed by the Serb forces led by Ratko Mladic. The Dayton Peace Accord was signed in December of 1996, effectively ending the war and sanctioning Bosnia into two separate legal entities, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. An estimated 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian War, with over two million displaced from their homes. In the aftermath of the war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was established in 1993 and began to try those most responsible for atrocious crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Amongst those were Radovan Karadzic and his right-hand man, Ratko Mladic. Throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war history, there are those who deny certain war crimes occurred regardless of court rulings and witness accounts, especially when it comes to the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

Radovan Karadzic was convicted of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide in 2016 and the forcible transfer, persecution, extermination, deportation and murder of Croats and Bosniaks in a campaign to drive them out of the country. Despite saying he was morally responsible for the incident, he denied ordering the genocide in Srebrenica or having any knowledge the massacre would take place. Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role in the Bosnian War under the counts of the siege of Sarajevo, ethnic cleansing operations, and the Srebrenica genocide.

Ratko Mladic, the leading commander who orchestrated the most atrocious war crimes during the Bosnian War, was convicted of 10 of the 11 charges the ICTY brought against him in 2017. This included but was not limited to, the indiscriminate shelling, sniper accounts, imprisonment camps, mass executions, and the Srebrenica genocide. During the trial, the victims and the victims’ families attended proceedings, including those who survived concentration camps and who lost their children to the atrocities of the war. Mladic pleaded ‘not guilty’ on all charges and after an outburst directed at one of the judges, was escorted out of the courtroom. After almost 600 witnesses and 4 years of trial, Mladic was sentenced to life in prison. To this day he insists his innocence and seeks an appeal on the grounds that the judges’ previous experience caused a biased decision to be made.

According to an ICTY official, the reasons people put forth to deny the genocide are numerous, from claiming secondary and tertiary graves are primary graves to saying the number of people killed is false. The 2004 report on the victims killed during the massacre presented by Republika Srpska’s government was a step in the right direction. However, further actions to reject and amend the document by the following governments are worrying. This signifies a wider attempt to revise and reject the facts of the war and politicize the tragedy. The turning of war criminals to heroes is also a signal of the dark turn of Republika Srpska’s politics. When the president of the Bosnian Serb Association of Women Victims of War, Bozica Zivkovic Rajilic, was asked of her opinion on the possible conviction of Karadzic, she said, “Radovan Karadzic will always remain… a hero who made an immense contribution to the creation of Republika Srpska and the defense of the Serb people.” Sonja Karadzic, a lawmaker for the Bosnian Serb government and daughter of Radovan Karadzic, cannot help her parent’s crimes, but she can help her politics. In a 2009 interview with Russia Today, she continued to assert her father’s innocence and her belief in the incompetence of the ICTY. “The Hague tribunal is not a court of justice,” she said, “but just some kind of disciplinary commission for NATO.”

The current member of the Presidency on behalf of the Serb people and Bosnian Serb politician, Milorad Dodik, believes the massacre in Srebrenica was not a genocide and called the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century” to Swiss officials in reaction to the prosecution of the wartime criminal in Bosnia, rather than Serbia in 2015. Despite two international court systems ruling otherwise, Dodik told the National Assembly in Bosnia-Herzegovina that, “the Srebrenica crime is a staged tragedy with an aim to satanize the Serbs,” and calls for an unbiased international reinvestigation. He believes the number of people who died in the massacre is incorrect, and that the majority of those who were buried died in the fighting. A member of the Mothers of Srebrenica rights association, Sehida Abdurahmanovic, called Dodik’s actions, “shameful and inhumane towards the victims.” And this isn’t the first, and probably not the last, current political leader to deny that the genocide even happened.

In 2016 Mladin Grujicic was elected as mayor of the city of Srebrenica. He’s the first Bosnian Serb to occupy the position since the Bosnian War. He also insists that genocide never occurred in Srebrenica. In a city that was majority Bosnian Muslim before the start of the Bosnian War, Srebrenica now contains 45% Bosniaks and 55% Serbs. Some are concerned for the direction Bosnian politics are going in the face of this blatant denial of the Srebrenica genocide. Grujicic believes Srebrenica’s Serbs face discrimination saying that the ICTY in The Hague has never proved the massacre in Srebrenica was a genocide. “When they prove it to be the truth,” he said, “I’ll be the first to accept it.”

When it comes to war crimes perpetrated during the Bosnian War, such as the genocide committed in Srebrenica, there seems to be a constant, politicized denial despite international and local court rulings. From the most notorious war criminals during the war, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to current day political leaders, such as president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and mayor of Srebrenica, Mladic Grujicic, this cycle of denial and indignation, along with the belief that the genocide is simply a political tool to use the Bosnian Serbs as a scapegoat, is preventing reconciliation to occur in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

By Courtney Mellina, intern at YIHR BiH, Long Island University