Back to Western Balkans programme

Has the legal ban on denial of war crimes fulfilled its purpose?

Has the legal ban on denial of war crimes fulfilled its purpose?

Many persons are of the opinion that a clean sweep of the public space in order to eliminate the venom of denial of war crimes, glorification of war crimes and convicted war criminals in the context of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian reality started in the summer of 2021, when the legal ban on genocide denial and denial of other war crimes entered into force. What are the results of such amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Has the legal ban on denial of war crimes fulfilled its purpose?
© Private archive

At first, this stirred controversy. Persons believed that, over the long term, the interventions of the OHR in the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina would deepen the crisis, increase the instability, and comments of politicians from Republika Srpska varied from mild disapproval to radical refusal of criminal law ”barricades” for those denying genocide from institutional pulpits while wearing entity, and frequently also state-level medals. It is known that the political protagonist of the practice of open denial of the genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995 is Milorad Dodik, who, ironically enough, became an unavoidable player in the establishment of the new government in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the majority will of the people. This is a confirmation of the existence of strong nationalist sentiment in the society of Republika Srpska, in spite of the new criminal law provisions that limit hate speech, which is publicly frequently presented as freedom of speech.

Namely, according to sources from the PR Department of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this judicial institution has opened 71 cases related to inciting of national, racial and religious hatred, discord and intolerance since 2021. None of these have been initiated based on criminal reports submitted by the police that include evidence, witness statements and everything else that is needed for initial steps in this process. Complaints were mostly filed by citizens against their fellow citizens due to their social media and Internet posts as well as citizens, NGOs and associations against certain politicians due to their statements in the media and public space. The Prosecutor’s Office has thus received no reports from the police and law enforcement agencies.

For the purpose of this text, the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina informed us that 40 complaints were submitted by e-mail and that a considerable number of persons filing such complaints were not willing to continue collaborating, but also that there were 14 anonymous complaints, in case of which no cooperation can be expected from persons filing them.

No final judgment yet  

Boris Grubešić, the PR Officer of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, stated that all cases were being handled and that the public would be informed about the details once specific decisions had been made by individual prosecutors. He furthermore stated that there were obvious changes in the public discourse.

”It is evident that following the adoption of legal amendments and start of the work of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina on these cases, hate speech and denial of crimes in the media and Internet considerably decreased. On the other hand, the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina has charged several persons with the crime of inciting national, racial and religious hatred, strife and intolerance in compliance with Article 145a (this included, among others, Mandić-Elta, Fatmir Alispahić and the Ravna Gora movement)”, Boris Grubešić, PR of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared in a written reply. In the meantime, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina upheld the conviction of Dušan Sladojević, Slavko Aleksić and Risto Lečić to a five-month prison sentence for inciting national, racial and religious hatred, strife and intolerance in Višegrad and the surrounding area in March 2019. This judgment was delivered after the first-instance acquittal of these three persons from December of last year had been abolished.

Less cases of genocide denial  

The Memorial Centre Srebrenica-Potočari has been monitoring denial of genocide in the media for the past three years and publishing a yearly ”Genocide Denial Report” based on the gathered data using a methodology developed by experts in cooperation with the team of the Memorial Centre. The 2022 Genocide Denial Report has shown that genocide denial has largely spilled from the Bosnian and Herzegovinian entity Republika Srpska to the neighbouring state, the Republic of Serbia. This is also explained by the fact that some media in the Republic of Serbia covered amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a negative manner, more specifically, there was a negative coverage of the introduced ban on genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

”Genocide was mostly denied by elected officials in the field of politics, the academia and the media. The manner in which the Srebrenica genocide has been denied involves its active denial, relativisation, calling for a new genocide and expression of support to the perpetrators. The report also highlights that denial decreased by 80% in the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but that there are also less persons that previously had openly denied genocide”, said Edin Ikanović from the Memorial Centre Srebrenica Potočari, who participates in the compiling of periodical reports. However, as stated by representatives of the Memorial Centre, over the past six months, there has been a decrease in genocide denial both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the neighbouring countries. Such indicators are a result of a more comprehensive social and political engagement that has been linked to the decision of the OHR and involved both domestic and international organisations, politicians and diplomats.

”It would be foolish to expect that denial will disappear simply because amendments to the Criminal Law of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been adopted, but we certainly already see some positive results. Once the judicial institutions give the first judgment for the Srebrenica genocide denial, we can expect that denial will stop at least in the public space”, said Ikanović and announced that the Memorial Centre would continue monitoring and recording cases of denial in the public space and regularly report to judicial institutions.   

In November of this year, the Head of the Memorial Centre, Emir Suljagić, filed a criminal complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina against the President of the Association of Journalists of Republika Srpska, Danijel Simić, because of his public appearance in a show of the Radio and TV Service of Republika Srpska, during which he said that every year, there was the ”Potočari role play” in Srebrenica. In addition to the criminal complaint, Suljagić also lodged a complaint with the Regulatory Communications Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whether the criminal complaint will lead to a relevant investigation, potential indictment and submission of the indictment to the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for confirmation, should become known in the following months, when we will be informed about the first decisions of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, it is necessary to recall a case from December 2021, when the Prosecutor’s Office received a criminal complaint against Radovan Kovačević, a PR officer of SNSD and advisor to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency member, Milorad Dodik, specifically because of the denial of the Srebrenica genocide during a show of the Television Service of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In June 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office decided not to initiate an investigation and explained that there was no reasonable doubt that the person against whom the complaint was filed had committed the relevant crime.  

Consequences in the Herzegovina region  

There has been a lengthy public discussion about the names of streets in Mostar named after WWII fascists. A year after the amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina had been adopted, Mostar voted that the names of the streets be changed. This moment, which according to many persons was historically important, was preceded by the establishment of a special committee tasked with a change of street names. It included the mayor, president of the City Council and representatives of factions of the three constituent peoples.

”A decision of the competent Department for Physical Planning and Construction/Cadastre Department is being prepared in compliance with the Decision on Field Marking, with the note that the names of streets have already been changed in the official registry. After the drawing up and delivery of the decision, the competent Economic Department will initiate the procurement procedure for new street signs in compliance with the decision”, representatives of the City of Mostar replied to our inquiry. They also pointed out that the draft address registry was put on the agenda of the meeting of the City Council of Mostar on November 29, 2022 and concluded by saying that it needed to be completed by field data for all parts of the City of Mostar.      

A Council member from Naša stranka, Irma Baralija, believes that the adoption of the Decision on Changing Street Names in Mostar, which is related to those streets that had been named after political and military officials from the WWII Ustasha regime, is related to the amendments to the Criminal Code and considers it positive development. However, she pointed out that controversial street signs were still visible and the city administration also referred to this.          

”Unfortunately, street names have not yet been changed, although a decision was adopted several months ago. Such a change is planned, probably as part of the wider marking and updating of street numbers in Mostar that the departments are preparing for the coming period. One should not forget that, at our insistence within the Council, the departments repainted the fascist inscriptions that vandals wrote at the entrance of the Partisan Memorial Cemetery. So, in the context of Mostar, these are important steps, although a lot remains to be done, such as the removal of murals depicting war criminals in the immediate vicinity of institutions or schools, such as the mural depicting the war criminal Slobodan Praljak”, Irma Baralija, a Council member from Naša stranka, explained.  

Radicalisation of youth

Seida Karabašić, President of the Association of Prijedor Women ”Izvor” stated that the entry into force of amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina regarding denial had generally led to results, but that it was not sufficient.  

”When it comes to the local level, we cannot say that this is the case. Unfortunately, over the past year, the situation regarding glorification and public celebration of war crimes as well as abuse and radicalisation of youth has become worse. Sadly, we do not have examples of processing and punishment of the perpetrators, which is the only way to stop denial of genocide and war crimes and would be a good example for young generations in order not to imitate such cases”, Karabašić said. She mentioned negative examples such as the fact that there were murals depicting the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić in many cities and warned that war songs were sung on the main street in Prijedor, which contributed to the intimidation of non-Serb citizens.  

Unfortunately, the situation is similar when it comes to Foča, as our interlocutor Midheta Kaloper from the Association of War Victims ”Foča 92-95” pointed out:

”It can be said that the situation in the local community Foča is still a cause for concern and that the law that had been imposed has not resulted in positive changes. One can still see examples of genocide denial in every part of Foča. There are murals depicting war criminals from both WWII and the most recent 92-95 war on every second building in Foča. On the other hand, there is no memorial or remembrance plaque in places where crimes were committed against women, girls and men”, Kaloper said.

She also added that the construction of water power plants in places where crimes had been committed also constituted denial of war crimes, since there was reasonable doubt based on the statement of the survivors that such locations still contained human remains.

”We believe that in order to adequately resolve all problems, it is necessary to start at the level of the local community and then work toward other levels. Of course, we welcome all sanctions and proceedings against persons denying genocide and war crimes, including changing the names of streets that were named after war criminals”, she said.

Activist Milica Pralica from the Association ”Oštra nula” believes that it is extremely important that there is a law that will sanction the denial of genocide and other war crimes. However, as she said, the problem was whether deniers would be sanctioned and whether there was political will to comply with the law.    

”There are cases involving journalists from public service broadcasters who denied genocide after the adoption of amendments to the Criminal Code in their statuses published on their own social network profiles. Criminal complaints were filed, but they have not been sanctioned and this is an issue. We have a law that is not being complied with. Immediately after the adoption of amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska adopted the Law on Non-Implementation of the Decision on Prohibition of Genocide Denial of the High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko. Reconciliation and peacekeeping in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still unfortunately only a task of the civil society and individuals at local communities, and that is an issue, since the civil society sector does not have sufficient capacities to also do the job of institutions, and that is also not the point of the civil society sector”, Milica Pralica explained.  

However, she pointed out that denial of crimes had decreased in the media and social networks, while glorification of war crimes in the public space had increased.

”After the adoption of amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are more and more murals, stencils and graffiti on buildings depicting Ratko Mladić and including messages of support. Some of them are on buildings of public institutions (Constitutional Court of Republika Srpska) and have not yet been removed”, Milica Pralica said.

The bottom line is that it should be pointed out that ”through official rituals of building a culture of remembrance, such as marking a certain date, building a monument and commemorative plaque, naming streets, etc.” (Markovina, D., 2017: 108 – Doba kontrarevolucije) we are creating a public narrative and such a narrative undoubtedly has to become a wake-up call and open the door for new peacekeeping policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

About the author

Nikola Vučić is a journalist, TV presenter and researcher. He is the editor and presenter of the N1 BiH TV show ”Izvan okvira”. He holds a degree in Comparative Literature from the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo. His thesis focused on perspectives of the regional comparative literature in the light of linguistic cross-border elements. During his work as a journalist, he was in charge of a series of projects in the field of human rights and gender equality, peace building and culture of remembrance. He cooperates with local and international civil society organisations. His academic research focuses on contemporary culture, identity policies and social practices. He publishes his works and publications in different media and newspapers, including the Croatian magazine Književna republika. He is the author of the work Kritike toksične muškosti that was published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in BCS and English in 2021.

This article is a result of cooperation between the author of the text and organisations forumZFD and TRIAL International.

The blog was written for a regional platform on Dealing with the Past. For more information please visit the Column section of DwP website.

Back to Western Balkans programme