Comment 01 Apr 10

Srebrenica Declaration: No Landmark But a Muddy Compromise

If the adoption of this text is not followed by concrete actions, starting with Ratko Mladic’s arrest, Serbia’s culture of impunity will not have changed and this is no more than empty words.

By Marijana Toma


After 13 hours of debate, which was very ugly and disrespectful at times towards the victims, Serbia’s National Assembly adopted its declaration condemning the crime committed in 1995 in Srebrenica. Although most international media rushed to assess this document as a “landmark”, Serbia’s apology to the victims of Srebrenica has left a bitter aftertaste.

The apology offered to the victims in the declaration does not have the real weight of acknowledgment of the truth about the crime that took place, or acceptance of accountability for the actions and policy that led to this crime.

Above all the declaration cannot be seen as an expression of an honest remorse if it is not followed by the arrest of the main remaining war-crimes indictee for Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic, and adoption of July 11 as Day of Remembrance.

Parliament in Belgrade was prompted to consider making a declaration on Srebrenica after Serbia’s President, Boris Tadic, proposed it should do so at the start of this year.

Twelve months earlier, in January 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution in which it condemned the murder committed in Srebrenica as genocide. This description was confirmed by the International Court of Justice, ICJ, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

The European Parliament called on all the countries of the Western Balkans, along with the institutions and member states of the EU, to “commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potocari act of genocide by supporting the European Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide”.

The President’s wish, however, that such a resolution gain wide-ranging political support – including that of the Socialists, the party of Serbia’s wartime leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and currently the coalition partner of Tadic’s Democratic Party – has led to difficulties in agreeing on the text.

Members of the Socialist Party asserted that “genocide” was too strong a term to describe what happened in Srebrenica, while some members of the government asserted more plainly that genocide never occurred there.

The strongly nationalistic opposition Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, reacted even more strongly to the proposal, condemning as “immoral and inhumane” what they said was an attempt to divide the dead by nationality and belittle innocent Serbian victims.

In response, the ruling Democratic Party attempted to reach a compromise, proposing an additional resolution that would condemn all the crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The ruling party also showed readiness to remove the word “genocide” from the original declaration.

The declaration adopted in the end, therefore, was a result of a compromise between various parties in the coalition government. The word “genocide” was not mentioned, even though the National Assembly refers to the ICJ judgment, which qualified Srebrenica as genocide.

The National Assembly did express their condolences to the victims of “the crime” and expressed apology for not doing everything possible to prevent this “tragedy”. While expressing full support for institutions mandated to prosecute those responsible, the Assembly also stressed the importance of the arrest of the then Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic and his trial before the ICTY.

Assured that this declaration would pave the way towards the continuation of the process of reconciliation, Serbian parliamentarians expressed an expectation that their counterparts in the region would do likewise, and condemn crimes committed against the Serbs.

First reactions have shown that almost nobody is satisfied, the Bosniak side because there is no mention of the word “genocide” and the Serbian nationalist side for not mentioning Serbian victims in the war. The West’s reactions have mainly been positive, describing it is an important step towards reconciliation in which Serbia showed it was making a significant effort to face up to the past.

President Tadic said the adoption of the declaration “contributes greatly to the democratization of Serbia and regional reconciliation.” Tadic stressed that with the declaration, the Serbian people were clearly distancing themselves from a monstrous crime.

However, the debate in parliament has shown that Serbia’s political leadership still finds it difficult to take a clear position on legacy of past crimes. In their efforts to secure broad political support for the declaration, the creators of the text forgot that the first group they needed to address in the declaration were the victims of Srebrenica. They deliberately left out the word genocide from the declaration.

By avoiding the qualification of genocide, the Assembly not only missed an opportunity to acknowledge victims of Srebrenica as victims but continued the policy of persistently denying full knowledge of, and accountability for, war crimes. Thus, the apology offered to victims of Srebrenica cannot be considered an honest one.

The consequences of this could be grave, jeopardizing the whole process of suppressing impunity and reconciliation in the region. It may give Serbia an excuse not to address these issues any longer, since condemnation of the worst crime had now been achieved through this document.

Societal denial of the truth about the crimes that happened in 1990s can only be reinforced, while the question of the wider accountability of those who supported the regime responsible for the crimes may never now be raised. If concrete actions of symbolic reparation do not follow, and if July 11 is not declared a Day of Remembrance, then the apology and condolences expressed by the Assembly are indeed empty words.

It is clear the text of the declaration was not directed at the most important target groups. The apology to the victims was not sincere, nor was there full condemnation of the crime. A clear message from the political leadership was not sent to Serbian society that there is no more room for denial.

An especially bitter moment was the closure of the parliamentary session on Tuesday night when the deputies could be seen congratulating one another in the Assembly over the declaration. It was as if the elected representatives of the citizens of Serbia had forgotten a very important thing; one should not applaud the victims, but stand in silence before them.

Marijana Toma is Coordinator for Serbia for Impunity Watch. Impunity Watch is a Netherlands-based non-profit group that promotes accountability for atrocities in countries emerging from a violent past. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus


Srebrenica: Genocide Reconstructed

In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.

Ratko Mladic: The Force Behind the Srebrenica Killings

The Bosnian Serb commander’s role in the genocide committed in Srebrenica is described in detail in many indictments and verdicts pronounced before local and international judicial institutions.

The Indictment Against Ratko Mladic

Indictments in 1995 and 2000, further amended in 2002 and 2010, charge the former commander of the Republika Srpska Army with genocide and other crimes.

Ratko Mladic: From Promising Officer to Bloodstained Warlord

When Mladic ordered his army to bomb the people of Sarajevo until they ‘go insane’, he revealed the murderous intentions that would culminate in the Srebrenica massacre.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter