Serbian Declaration on Srebrenica Massacre an Imperfect but Important Step

On March 31, 2010, the Serbian parliament adopted a declaration "condemning in strongest terms the crime committed in July 1995 against Bosniac population of Srebrenica" and apologizing to the families of the victims.

The declaration is a step in the right direction and, potentially, an educational moment for Serbia, as some of its public still ignores the nature and extent of the Srebrenica massacre. In a 2009 poll carried out in Serbia, only 39 percent of the respondents thought that the events amounted to a "war crime." The initiative to pass a resolution came from President Boris Tadic, who pushed for it even though the issue was politically controversial. In the past, only human rights groups and non-nationalistic parties had supported such a measure.

The declaration should be viewed in the context of a growing global trend, in which democratic states accept responsibility for past abuse and offer apologies to victims. It is still a novel practice, and the shape and form of apologies vary widely from case to case.

In some cases, such as El Salvador's presidential apology for the 1980 assassination of prominent cleric Oscar Romero, successor democratic governments take responsibility for state crimes, even if committed by a previous dictatorial regime. Similarly, Brazil recently offered apologies and reparations to victims of the 1964–1988 military dictatorship, and Australia and Canada have apologized to their indigenous citizens, including for abuses against children subjected to forced assimilation programs. Those apologies were solemn occasions where the heads of government delivered carefully drafted speeches to a full session of parliament, broadcasted live to the entire country.

An official apology is usually a controversial issue, and this one is no exception: the Srebrenica declaration has many critics. Many members of parliament failed to attend the vote—and some voted against the resolution—so it passed by a small majority. Much of civil society, however, considers the apology insufficient, as it does not explicitly recognize the massacre as an act of genocide. This is clearly an open debate in Serbia. Instead of seeing the declaration as an occasion for polarization, government and civil society should use it as an educational opportunity, an opening to conduct reasonable discussion, particularly among the young.

Such a debate should take the existing judicial findings on Srebrenica as its point of departure: Serbia's declaration refers, for example, to a 2007 judgment by the International Court of Justice, which acknowledged that Srebrenica’s bloody events constituted Crimean act of genocide. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) made equally clear findings. The tribunal established that "within a period of no more than seven days, as many as 7,000–8,000 men of military age were systematically massacred, while the remainder of the Bosnian Muslim population present at Srebrenica, some 25,000 people, were forcibly transferred" (Krstic Trial Chamber Decision, Aug. 2, 2001, para. 594).

Admission of abuse and expressions of regret are essential parts of a serious apology. It is commendable that Serbian MPs have taken this step after a long period of denial. However, apologies must be complete and explicit. The Srebrenica declaration remains silent or ambiguous on some important issues, such as the number of people killed and the terminology to describe the crimes. Silence or ambiguity plays into the hands of historical revisionism, a troubling phenomenon in Europe, as Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis prove quite often.

Another controversial feature of the parliamentary declaration is that it expresses the "expectation that the highest authorities in other states in the territory of the former Yugoslavia will in the same way condemn crimes committed against the Serbs, and apologize and express condolences to the families of the Serb victims." While it is indisputable that all victims' suffering must be recognized and that Serbian victims have the right to see their experiences acknowledged, this apology is not the place to articulate that demand.

Even if incomplete in its present form, the declaration may constitute a milestone for the Balkans and Europe in addressing the legacies of a troubled and not-so-distant past. The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) encourages the Serbian authorities to use the momentum generated by this important step to conduct a productive national debate on its past, engaging in particular educators and the young. ICTJ considers that an apology, while a fundamental element in dealing with a troubled past, should be made as part of a holistic response that includes seeking the truth, providing reparations to victims, ensuring the prosecution of perpetrators and the implementation of reforms to prevent recurrence. Serbia’s record on these issues is far from stellar. The March 31 declaration may help matters, but there is still a great deal left to do.

Background

On July 11, 1995, during the armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb forces seized the town of Srebrenica, even though the United Nations had declared it "safe area." Bosniac men tried to break out of the Serbian encirclement, but were repeatedly ambushed. During the attacks on the escaping men, large numbers of the Bosniacs were killed or taken prisoner. In the following week, Serb forces executed thousands of captured Bosniacs in areas around Srebrenica.

In August 2001, in the Krstic case, a trial chamber of the ICTY ruled that Bosnian Serb forces had committed genocide in July 1995. The ICTY Appeals Chamber confirmed the finding in April 2004. In February 2007, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) accepted the ICTY characterization of the crime in a judgment concerning the application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina vs. Serbia and Montenegro). According to the ICJ, Serbia violated its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, by failing to take all measures within its power to prevent genocide and to transfer Ratko Mladić, indicted for genocide and complicity in genocide, for trial by the ICTY.

In January 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution recognizing July 11 as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the European Union and calling on all the countries in the territory of the former Yugoslavia to do the same.