In an interview with Deutsche Welle on November 14, Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabić denied the Srebrenica genocide. While describing the atrocities committed by extremist Bosnian Serb militias against Bosnian Muslims in July 1995 as a “war crime,” Brnabić explicitly dismissed the term “genocide.” Her problem with this particular word is emblematic of the policies followed by Serbia and the so-called “Republika Srpska” (the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina).
When the interviewer implied Brnabić was rewriting history, she stubbornly reiterated: “I do not think it’s a genocide.” Treating the term as a flexible concept, she added in a Trump-esque manner: “I think it was a terrible, terrible crime.” Struggling for words, a seemingly defensive Brnabić eventually redefined the term altogether: “Genocide is basically when you are … killing … the entire population, the women, children and this was not the case.” Obviously, the survival of some women and children does not make Srebrenica less of a genocide.
Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term, explained that genocide “does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation,” but that it “is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” In fact, as a crime under international law, genocide is defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” according to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the UN 1948.
The massacre of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was recognized as a genocide by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which ruled that “[b]y seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide.” Several Bosnian Serb leaders were sentenced by ICTY for crimes against humanity, including genocide.
As reflected in Brnabić’s statements, the term genocide is viewed by many Serbs as damaging to their national honor. Indeed, during her interview, Brnabić resorted to defensive, nationalist rhetoric: “It [the genocide] wasn’t done in the name of (the) Serbian people. … Serbs cannot be collectively blamed for what happened there.” The failure to separate the genocide committed by government/militia from the general population has problematized the discussion of genocide and perpetuated its denial. This, however, is exactly what many Serb governments and many Serbophobes have done. Both Serbian ultranationalism and Serbophobes insist on an inherent link between the regime and the people.
Brnabić’s views are also dangerous because they treat Srebrenica as a mysterious incident unrelated to the particular context of the war and its history. The massacre occurred years after war crimes began in Bosnia, and was the culmination of a genocidal strategy undertaken by the Bosnian Serb political leadership and militia toward the Muslim and Croat population.
In denying genocide, Serbia’s prime minister has further fueled the nationalist and revisionist sentiments that have already been prevalent in the region. Most of all, her remarks are yet another insult to the victims of genocide.