Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Experts Pessimistic About Genocide Prevention

Criticism of decision-makers and policies that tolerate genocide and other mass crimes dominate discussions at Sarajevo conference.
By Edina Becirevic
Since 1995, the second week of July in Bosnia-Herzegovina has traditionally been a time when the genocide in Srebrenica is remembered and discussed.

During that week, 12 years ago, some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed as Bosnian Serb forces overran the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica.

On July 9 to 13 this year, 500 scholars, experts and activists from all over the world came to Sarajevo to discuss the prevention of genocide at a meeting of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, IAGS.

Six of these conferences have already been held in the United States, and this was the first time that this event took place in a country where genocide has been committed.

In his introductory remarks, Smail Cekic, the director of Sarajevo University’s Institute of the Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, which hosted the event, emphasised the importance of the conference taking place “at the scene where the actual crime happened”.

Cekic also reminded participants that genocide denial is still prevalent in Bosnia.

“The contemporary state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is being built by thousands of individuals linked to crimes,” said Cekic.

A number instances of genocide that took place in the 20th century were discussed, including those in Armenia, Ukraine, Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, as well as the Holocaust.

The ongoing situation in Darfur, in western Sudan - which the US government has called a genocide - was also mentioned as the most recent example of how the international community keeps failing to intervene and prevent the crime.

At the end of the conference, scholars adopted a resolution calling for an international intervention to halt genocide there. It was a noble gesture, made in hope that sufficient public pressure will finally have an effect on international decision makers.

But unfortunately, the power of decision making is not in the hands of scholars.

Criticism of decision-makers and policies that tolerate genocide and other mass crimes dominated discussions.

International criminal law was not spared, with speakers blaming this for setting a high threshold for proving genocide.

Calls for the crime of genocide to be redefined were repeated a number of times. Martin Shaw, professor of International Relations and Politics at the University of Sussex in the UK, argued that forced migration is a prime method of genocide.

In his presentation, he talked about restoring the broad concept of genocide as social rather than physical destruction, which was used by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who originally coined the term.

A number of the participants painted a bleak picture for the future possibilities of genocide prevention.

Many agreed that prevention depended on the political will of powerful countries to stop genocide before it happens.

While Kosovo is an example of a potential genocide averted, what happened in Bosnia and Rwanda was the result of the failure of international powers to prevent this crime.

French writer Sylvie Matton mentioned the names of many international diplomats whom she holds responsible for complicity in genocide in Srebrenica.

She also condemned American, Russian, British and French official policy during the genocide in Bosnia, which she blamed for participating in a “cover up” of this crime.

“That is why they have never wanted [Bosnian Serb leaders] Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic to be arrested and tried, as their trial would in part reveal the negotiations and compromises between the so-called international community - especially the five permanent members of the Security Council - and the perpetrators,” she said.

In her conclusion, Matton expressed hope that genocide prevention remained a possibility and emphasised the power the media has in influencing public opinion and providing a wake-up call.

“All of us - writers, journalists, observers, members of civil society - must remain aware. We must fight for the values and principles that politicians are used to putting aside so easily,” she said.

Marko Atila Hoare, a historian from Kingston University in the UK, analysed the International Court of Justice, ICJ, decision to acquit Serbia of charges that it committed genocide against the Bosnian people, but find it guilty of failure to prevent and punish genocide at Srebrenica.

“The ICJ’s concept of ‘genocidal intent’ as one that must stand alone, without any related motives, such as the goal of forced expulsion or ethnic homogeneity, is self-contradictory and reductionist to the point of absurdity,” said Hoare.

He said the ICJ failed to see a genocidal pattern in the atrocities committed in 1992, at the start of the Bosnian war, and refused to accept a systematic destruction of the Bosnian Muslim cultural heritage as evidence of genocide.

“On the basis of the ICJ’s reasoning, even large parts of the Nazi extermination of Jews would fail to constitute genocide,” said Hoare.

Despite the highly charged atmosphere created by sharp criticisms of international criminal law, plenary speaker Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the Hague tribunal, seemed unprepared for questions on failures of her office to successfully prosecute genocide, except in the case of Radislav Krstic.

Other questions related to Del Ponte’s involvement in regional and international power politics, especially her role in the protection of documents of the Serbian Supreme Defence Council, which were not handed over to the ICJ and perhaps could have changed the outcome of Bosnia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia.

When asked whether she regretted taking a role in protecting Serbia’s national interests - a country that has lied to her, broken promises and was convicted of failure to prevent genocide - Del Ponte said she has “no regrets”.

She said the decision to keep documents under seal remains the responsibility of the tribunal’s judges. In Bosnia’s lawsuit against Serbia, ICJ judges were responsible for not asking for the documents to be disclosed, said Del Ponte.

Even though a significant number of judges, prosecutors and investigators - former and present - are in possession of these documents, they respect the fact that the tribunal gave guarantees to Serbia that they will not be disclosed.

In this way, these good soldiers of international criminal law are following the same line of reasoning by which many perpetrators of war crimes find themselves on trial: obeying rules without questioning their fairness.

Edina Becirevic is a senior lecturer at the faculty of Criminal Justice Sciences in Sarajevo.

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