“I shall advocate the adoption of a genocide denial law by the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We shall surely have such a law next year on the 25th anniversary of the genocide.”
This is what High Representative Valentin Inzko, the international overseer of the implementation of the peace deal that ended the Bosnian war, told media when the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide was marked in July last year.
Despite this, over the past ten months, the proposed Law on the Prohibition of Genocide and War Crimes Denial has not been adopted by the state parliament.
Ljiljana Radetic, senior adviser on media and external relations at the Office of the High Representative, told BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina that the issue should be resolved “for the benefit of survivors and victims”.
“The focus is on parliament, which still has enough time to invest additional effort. As we often stress, good domestic solutions are best for this country,” she said.
The High Representative has the right to impose the adoption of the Law on the Prohibition of Genocide and War Crimes Denial under the so-called ‘Bonn powers’ that allow him to push through or veto legislation and to sack officials.
But when asked if Inzko will insist that the law be adopted before the 25th anniversary is commemorated, Radetic declined to answer, saying that she did not want to “speculate on eventual future moves by the High Representative”.
Two previous legislative initiatives to prohibit the denial of genocide, the Holocaust and other war crimes have been proposed at the state level over the past decade.
But in both cases, the proposals did not receive the required consent from both Bosnia’s political entities, the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation and the Serb-majority Republika Srpska. Both times, opposition from Serb politicians scuppered the initiative.
Meanwhile, revisions and amendments to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s criminal code to enable the prosecution of genocide and war crimes denial have been proposed at the state level three times, but have not been adopted either.
In the Federation entity, there is a legal provision prohibiting genocide denial if it incites hatred, division or intolerance, but BIRN was told by prosecutors and experts that the legislation is badly written and not used in practice.
‘Established facts are frequently contested’
More than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces and more than 40,000 women, children and elderly people were expelled from Srebrenica in July 1995. Verdicts handed down by Bosnian and international courts have classified the massacres as genocide.
Despite this, denial of genocide and other war crimes is widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this took on an institutional dimension last year when the Republika Srpska authorities appointed a commission to investigate “the suffering of all peoples in the Srebrenica area” and another one to probe the suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo during wartime.
Some observers have expressed fears that both commissions have been set up by the Bosnian Serbs to deny the facts about Srebrenica and other crimes committed by Serb forces.
But Milorad Kojic of Republika Srpska’s government-supported Centre for Research on War, War Crimes and Missing Persons insisted that the commissions are “needed for reconciliation” and objected to the adoption of any law that would ban the denial of genocide or war crimes.
“In fact, in a nutshell it would mean that all of us, without exception, would have to accept the qualifications determined in verdicts from the Hague Tribunal and the domestic judiciary without being able to point to omissions and illogicalities in those verdicts, not only in the case of Srebrenica, but also in many other cases,” Kojic argued.
Denial of the Srebrenica genocide, the glorification of convicted war criminals and other revisionist narratives were among the key problems identified last year in a European Commission report on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Established facts about wartime events, including war crimes and genocide, are frequently contested by high-level political leaders, who cast doubts on the independence or impartiality of international tribunals,” the European Commission report said.
“All actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina need to demonstrate full cooperation with the international tribunals by acknowledging and respecting their decisions. Revisionism and denial contradict the most fundamental European values,” it added.
‘The law should help create security’
Several state-level parliamentarians told BIRN that even before the coronavirus pandemic, there was no chance of the legislation prohibiting genocide denial being adopted.
Semsudin Mehmedovic, a member of the Bosniak-led Party of Democratic Action and an MP in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of parliament, said that the only way to do it would be for High Representative Inzko “to impose such a legal solution”.
Zlatko Miletic, a Croat MP from the Democratic Front party in parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Peoples, urged Inzko in January to use his special powers to bring in the ban on genocide denial because Bosnian politicians had failed to do so.
Miletic said sentences should range from six months to five years in prison for ordinary citizens, and up to 10 years for officials.
“I was hoping that we would be able to adopt such law or that it would be imposed by the High Representative prior to the marking of the [25th] anniversary of Srebrenica,” he told BIRN.
“In any case, it remains to be seen, but we must find the strength in the coming period to have such a law entered into force, because all [war] victims, irrespective of their ethnicity, are being upset,” Miletic said.
Social Democratic Party MP Denis Becirovic, who proposed similar legislation in 2017, said the issue was “above and beyond party interests”.
“The text of this law should contribute to the creation of an atmosphere of security, trust, fairness and solidarity with victims,” Becirovic said.
But Nikola Spiric, an MP from the Serb-led Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party in the House of Peoples, objected to Inzko becoming involved in law-making, arguing that “any external interference further complicates the situation”.
When asked if he thought that a law on genocide and war crimes denial would be adopted in the near future, Spiric said it was difficult to give a prognosis on anything in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“There is hardly anyone who can say this or that will happen,” Spiric said.
Journalist Dragan Bursac said he mainly blamed Serb politicians for blocking the law, arguing that they used genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals as tools to win votes.
“The adoption of such a law will prevent politicians who celebrate the architects and perpetrators of genocide and other crimes from winning local elections,” Bursac said.
“This is the most important reason why primarily Serb political power-holders do not want such a law to be adopted, which is shameful.”
This article was created in cooperation with forumZFD and TRIAL International. Their publication titled “CALLING WAR ATROCITIES BY THEIR RIGHT NAME” – Regulating a Ban on Denial, Trivialisation, Justification or Condonation of Genocide, the Holocaust, Crimes against Humanity or War Crimes is available on this link.