Srebrenica 15 Years After: The Politicization of “Genocide”

It has become an annual ritual each July to commemorate the “Srebrenica massacre,” which dates back to July 11-16, 1995.  The now institutionalized characterization is that “8,000 [Bosnian Muslim] men and boys” were executed by the Serbs at that time, in “the worst mass killing in Europe since the Second World War.”  This memorial is attended to each year by marches and “a line of weeping relatives” (in Bosnia), interviews with the families of victims, discussion groups, conferences, and numerous media articles and statements of diplomats and political leaders recounting the story and expressing regrets at alleged UN, Dutch, and Great Power failures to prevent the killings.  This year the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, was in attendance, showing the contrite face of the New (defeated, and supplicant) Serbia.  President Obama declared the massacre “a stain on our collective consciousness” in violation of our promise of “never again” after the Nazi atrocities of World War II, and he stated that “there can be no lasting peace without justice.”1

The regular annual focus of attention on this particular tragedy and violence calls for an explanation.  After all, there is no such annual memorial in the West as regards the Sabra-Shatila killings of several thousand Palestinians on September 16-18, 1982, although these were killings of civilians, whereas the Bosnian Muslims killed at Srebrenica were almost exclusively military-aged men, mostly soldiers.  Also, just one month after the Srebrenica massacre the Croatian military invaded the Krajina area, killing several thousand, including several hundred women and children, and turned some 250,000 Serbs into refugees, the largest case of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars.  Interestingly, this episode is not only not the subject of any annual memorial, it has been celebrated as a “Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day” in Croatia, but EU officials and President Obama do not express their sympathy with the Serb victims or regret at the insensitivity of the Croatians celebrating their ethnic cleansing success.  Madeleine Albright did condemn the Krajina expulsions in the Security Council on August 10, 1995, but she was more indignant over “13,000 men, women and children [who] were driven from their homes” at Srebrenica.2  A European Parliament resolution of January 15, 2009, which institutionalized an annual “day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide,” mentions the “deportations of thousands of women, children and elderly people” from Srebrenica, but nowhere does it officially condemn or call for the memorialization of the deportation of 250,000 Serbs from the Krajina.3

This selectivity is hugely political.  The Sabra-Shatila killings and Croatian ethnic cleansing were carried out by U.S. allies, the latter with overt U.S. support (though Albright “categorically” denied this before the Security Council4), which rules out any official mention, memorialization by the Western establishment, or any demand for justice.  The Srebrenica massacre, by contrast, was carried out by a U.S.-NATO target, occurred at a very convenient moment, and has been serviceable ever since.  It helped justify intensified military intervention by the United States and NATO, including eventually NATO’s Kosovo-Serbia bombing war of March-June 1999, the follow-up NATO occupation of Kosovo, and the final breakup of Yugoslavia.  Srebrenica’s role in demonization helped exclude the Bosnian Serb leadership from participation in the 1995 Dayton peace negotiations, and, eventually, using the NATO-country-sponsored International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY), made it possible to charge, try, and finish off Milosevic.5  It has also rationalized the further humiliation and subjugation of Serbia, an act of vengeance for its resistance to the post-Soviet Western power projection into the Balkans, just as Vietnam was subjected to an 18-year boycott for its resistance to a U.S. invasion and attempt to impose a satellite regime on that distant land.  For brain-washed Western audiences, however, Srebrenica shows that Western military intervention can be good — if there was a failure to stop genocide at least the West brought a belated justice to the villains.  A continuous reminder of this humanitarian role in Western military intervention is provided by the annual Srebrenica memorial.

Admittedly, 8,000 is a large number.  But 250,000 Serb refugees is a larger number.  Recall also Albright’s notorious statement in 1996 that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children resulting from the U.S.-sponsored “sanctions of mass destruction” was “worth it,” based on U.S. political aims.  There is also the internal State Department memo of September 1994, cited in The Politics of Genocide,6 indicating that 10,000 Hutu civilians were being slaughtered per month by the U.S. ally Kagame’s forces in Rwanda.  This very large number didn’t affect U.S. support of Kagame, it has never been cited in the mainstream media or by the humanitarian interventionists; and Kagame is excluded from the long list of black African leaders (14 so far) indicted by the International Criminal Court.  And of course there are no memorials or Western demands for justice for these unworthy victims.

Apart from its selectivity, there is also a question of the accuracy of that large number, 8,000.  There has been a steady stream of inflated, sometimes ludicrously inflated, claims of target-inflicted deaths in the Yugoslav wars.  From 1993 onward the implausible and unverified Bosnian Muslim claim of 200-300,000 victims was uncritically accepted and institutionalized in the Western mainstream media.  It was undermined in 2003-2007 by a pair of studies sponsored by the ICTY itself and the Norwegian government, both of which found total deaths on all sides, including soldiers, to be on the order of 100,000.7  This deflation has only slowly crept into the mainstream media, which have never explained or apologized for their gullibility.  In the case of the Kosovo bombing war of March-June 1999, U.S. official claims of Serb killings reached up to 500,000, and Western officials and media pundits were hysterical in their denunciations and indignation.  Eventually the official claims fell to 11,000, but the total number of bodies uncovered and missing persons together, including soldiers and non-Kosovo Muslim civilians, was little more than half that official claim (some 6,000).8  But the mainstream media used the word “genocide” 323 times in describing what happened to the Kosovo Muslims, versus 80 times for the Iraq sanctions, which involved 200 times as many civilian deaths, and they used it only 17 times for deaths in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which involved over a thousand times more deaths than in Kosovo.9  Inflated counts and “genocide” for the worthy victims (of U.S. targets); low key treatment and avoidance of invidious words like “genocide” for the unworthy victims (of the United States itself or one of its clients).

The Srebrenica massacre of “8,000 men and boys” dates back to a Red Cross claim about missing people in July-August 1995, when no real data were available,10 yet that same number is cited today, in a small miracle of coincidence and persistence.  In fact, the 8,000 is now taken as possibly an underestimate — the EU resolution of January 15, 2009 speaks of “more than 8,000” and this is commonplace.  It will be recalled that the initial 9-11 estimate of deaths from the New York City Trade Center attack — 6,886 — fell subsequently to 2,749, a decline of 60 percent.  The figure for Muslim dead in Bosnia fell from some 250,000 in 1992-3 to fewer than 100,000 today, a fall of well over 60 percent.  The number allegedly massacred by the Serbs in Kosovo during the 1999 bombing war fell from U.S. official claims of 100,00, 250,000, and as high as 500,000, to an official (and still inflated) figure of 11,000 today, a drop of 90 percent or more.  But Srebrenica’s number stays the same — not because it is based on evidence, but because it is so central and useful a political construct, and is repeated by members of the establishment with the assurance of true believers.

The 8,000 is sustained in part because the follow-up list of missing persons eventually assembled was done by means of an appeal to the Bosnian Muslim population to come forward with names of the missing.  Again, by the continuing miracle, this list still approximates 8,000.  But it was not collected on any kind of scientific basis, and it has been found that some of the names are of men who died before July 1995, quite a few seem to have voted in the 1996 election, and the number has never been sustained by forensic evidence.  As late as 2001 the ICTY had only located some 2,100 bodies in the Srebrenica area, not many identified or shown to have been July 1995 Srebrenica victims.11  Later grave finds have been similarly problematic.  A basic problem throughout has been the fact that there was severe fighting between the thousands of Bosnian Muslim 25th regiment soldiers, who left Srebrenica for Bosnian Muslim lines on or shortly before July 11, 1995, and Bosnian Serb forces.  Both Bosnian Muslim and Serb officials have estimated that 2,000 or more Muslim soldiers were killed in this retreat; the Bosnian Muslim Chief of the Supreme Command Staff General Enver Hadzihasanovic testified in the trial of Radislav Krstic that he could “claim for certainty that 2,628 members, both soldiers and commanding officers, members of the 28th Division, were killed” during this retreat.12  According to an analysis of the autopsy reports compiled by the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY from 1995 to 2002 by the Serb forensic expert Ljubisa Simic, in roughly 77 percent of the bodies associated with these reports it was either impossible to determine the manner of death (i.e., execution or combat) or the manner of death strongly suggested that it was in combat.13   This uncertainty was very convenient, because, with a compliant ICTY, Bosnian Muslim investigative authority, and media, they could all be quietly assumed to have been executed.

There is no doubt that there were at least several hundred executions in the Srebrenica area in July 1995, as 443 ligatures and “at least” 448 blindfolds were found in the mass graves,14 but there is no serious evidence that more Bosnian Muslims were executed there than the number of civilians killed by Croatian forces in Operation Storm in the following month.  The Bosnian Serbs were in a vengeful mood as the “safe area” of Srebrenica had long been the military base from which Bosnian Muslim forces went out to attack nearby Serb towns.  Many scores of these towns were assaulted and several thousand Serbs were killed in these actions in the several years before July 1995.15  Naser Oric, the Bosnian Muslim military commander in those years, actually bragged about his killings to Western journalists, showing them videos of beheadings, and acknowledging an action which had left 114 Serb dead.16  What a field day the ICTY would have had if such admissions, and videos, had been attributable to Karadzic, or Mladic, or Milosevic!  But given their attribution to an alleged defender of a victim population, Oric could get away with murder.  General Philippe Morillon, who had been in charge of UN forces in the Srebrenica area, told the ICTY that Serb brutality at Srebrenica could be explained in good part by this prior Oric-Bosnian Muslim violence, but this context was never mentioned in the EU resolution of January 2009 nor in the speeches about and analyses of Srebrenica at the July 2010 memorials.

Another bit of context-stripping has been the assailing of the UN-provided Dutch peacekeeper contingent at Srebrenica for its failure to stop the massacre.  There has even been a lawsuit initiated against them in the Netherlands for their alleged complicity.17  This line of memorial apologetics rests on multiple misrepresentations and lies.  The EU resolution of January 2009 mentions twice that Srebrenica was “a protected zone” by virtue of a UN Security Council ruling, and that “Muslim men and boys . . . had sought safety in this area under the protection” of UN protection forces, so that the massacre “stands as a symbol of the impotence of the international community.”  But the Resolution fails to mention that the protected zone was supposed to have been demilitarized, but wasn’t.  Naser Oric and his fighting cadres had not been disarmed, and many attacks on Serb villages had been launched from the “protected area.”  Furthermore, in July 1995 there were several thousand well-armed Bosnian Muslim soldiers of the 25th regiment located in the town.  So the Resolution deceives, first by omission of the actual role of the “protected zone” (protecting a fully operational Bosnian Muslim military base).  It deceives (and lies) secondly in saying men and boys had “sought safety” in Srebrenica, implying that these were civilians, not the 25th regiment.  It contains other lies: one is that there was “rape of a large number of women,” a charge for which there has never been any evidence whatsoever.  So rather than the “impotence of the international community” what we see here was really the “international community’s” complicity with Naser Oric and the Bosnian Muslims in their military strategies, local ethnic cleansing, and provocations of the Bosnian Serb armed forces, and the parallel refusal of the Western leadership to try to settle these struggles, manifested in their sabotaging of the early 1992 Lisbon agreement and its successor peace plans.18

The fact that a well-armed Bosnian Muslim regiment of several thousand men was located in Srebrenica, and retreated without putting up any defense against a Serb attack force of 200, shows that the charges against the lightly armed Dutch peacekeeping contingent of 69 men are ridiculous and misdirected.  Why not sue the Bosnian Muslims responsible for the retreat for any deaths that followed in the Srebrenica area?  But in the spirit of the memorial, and the narrative and ideology on which it rests,19 the Bosnian Muslims can only be victims, and the UN and tiny Dutch protection force must bear the burden of responsibility (along with the Serbs).

Another Srebrenica memorial myth is that the memorial and political actions associated with it are necessary for real peace.  In the words of the EU resolution, “there cannot be real peace without justice,” which means getting Mladic into court, and this is essential for “reconciliation” so that “civilians of all ethnicities may overcome the tensions of the past.”  But how about justice for the thousands of Serbs killed from the UN-protected Srebrenica base between 1992 and July 1995, the 250,000 driven out of Krajina in Operation Storm, and the thousands of Serbs and Roma driven out of Kosovo since the NATO takeover and installation of the KLA in power?  NATO’s bombing war against Yugoslavia in March-June 1999 was in violation of the UN Charter, killed many hundreds of civilians, and involved the use of illegal weapons (cluster bombs, depleted uranium).  Don’t we need criminal prosecutions in these cases for justice and reconciliation?  Furthermore, doesn’t huge attention to a one-sided remembrance and memorial create resentments and assure long-term ethnic hostilities?  Can’t it be used by the preferred side to keep the pot boiling, rub salt in the wounds of their enemies, and obtain financial and political advantages from their powerful Western supporters?

The memorials and EU Resolution are not designed for peace and reconciliation; they are a continuation of the war of pacification and vengeance against Serbia and a means of showing that the ongoing U.S.-NATO militarization and permanent global “war of terror” is a fight against evil.



1  “World Leaders Mark 15th Anniversary of Srebrenica Massacre,” CNN Wire July 12, 2010; “Statement by the President on the 15th Anniversary of the Genocide at Srebrenica,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 11, 2010.

2  For Madeleine Albright’s respective comments, see “The situation in Croatia” (S/PV.3563), UN Security Council, August 10, 1995, p. 20; and “The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (S/PV.3564), UN Security Council, August 10, 1995, pp. 6-7.

3  European Parliament resolution of 15 January 2009 on Srebrenica (P6_TA(2009)0028), Official Journal of the European Union, para. 2, para. D, pp. C 46 E/111 – C 46 E/113.

4  “The situation in Croatia” (S/PV.3563), UN Security Council, August 10, 1995, p. 20.  “[L]et me categorically deny the allegation that I was told had been made by Mr. Djokic,” Albright said before the Security Council, “that the United States gave tactical advice or logistical support to the Government of Croatia’s military operation.  This baseless charge can only make it harder for my Government to see the day when Serbia and Montenegro can rejoin the community of nations.”  Of course, she was lying.

5  Slobodan Milosevic died in prison in March 2006, two weeks after the ICTY judges voted against allowing his temporary transfer to Moscow for treatment of his heart condition.  See Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Milosevic’s Death in the Propaganda System,” Electric Politics, May 14, 2006.

6  Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), p. 57.

7  See Ewa Tabeau and Jakub Bijak, “War-related Deaths in the 1992-1995 Armed Conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Critique of Previous Estimates and Recent Results,” European Journal of Population, Volume 21, 2005, pp. 187-215; and Patrick Ball et al., Bosnian Book of the Dead: Assessment of the Database, Research and Documentation Center, Sarajevo, June, 2007.

8  In her testimony before the UN Security Council in late 2000, ICTY Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte reported approximately 4,000 sets of human remains recovered from the conflict in Kosovo; see “Statement to the Press by Carla Del Ponte” (FH/P.I.S./550-e), ICTY, December 20, 2000, para. 16.  In its most current estimate of the number of “persons unaccounted for in connection with the Kosovo conflict,” the ICRC reports a total of 1,904 missing persons, down from 2,047 in June 2007; see “Serbia / Kosovo: More Progress Needed to Clarify Fate of Kosovo Missing,” ICRC, June 3, 2009.  

9  Herman and Peterson, The Politics of Genocide, Table 1, “Differential attributions of ‘genocide’ to different theaters of atrocities,” p. 35.

10  See “Former Yugoslavia: Srebrenica: Help for Families Still Awaiting News,” ICRC News, September 13, 1995.  Also see Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,” Monthly Review, Vol. 59, No. 5, October, 2007, p. 19.

11  See Judge Almiro Rodrigues et al., Judgment, Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic (IT-98-33-T), August 2, 2001, Section A(9), “Forensic Evidence of the Executions,” para. 71-79, and A(10), “The Number of Men Executed by the Bosnian Serb Forces Following the Take-over of Srebrenica in July 1995,” para. 80-84; esp. para. 80.

12  See The Prosecutor of the Tribunal Against Radislav Krstic (IT-98-33-T), Trial Transcript, April 6, 2001, p. 9532, lines 20-21.  Hadzihasanovic also testified that the “accurate number of the members of the 28th Division who managed to get through [to Bosnian government-controlled territory] was 3,175” (p. 9532, lines 15-16).

13  Ljubisa Simic, “Forensic Analysis of Srebrenica Post-Mortem Reports,” paper presented at a Symposium in Moscow on the ICTY and Srebrenica, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences of the Russian Federation and the Srebrenica Historical Project, September 2009.

14  Judgment, Prosecutor v. Radislav Krstic (IT-98-33-T), August 2, 2001, para. 75. 

15  Serb historian Milivoje Ivanisevic lists the names of 3,287 Serbs, most of  them civilians, who were killed in the Srebrenica-Birac region, 1992-1995: Srebrenica July 1995 (Belgrade: Christian Thought, 2008).

16  Bill Schiller, “Muslims’ Hero Vows He’ll Fight to the Last Man,” Toronto Star, January 31, 1994; and John Pomfret, “Weapons, Cash and Chaos Lend Clout to Srebrenica’s Tough Guy,” Washington Post, February 16, 1994.

17  “Victims’ Relatives Seek War Crimes Charges for Dutch Peacekeepers at Srebrenica,” Associated Press, July 6, 2010.

18  Herman and Peterson, “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia,” esp. Section 2, “The Role of the Serbs, Milosevic, and ‘Greater Serbia’,” pp. 9-14; and Section 11, “Final Note,” pp. 46-49.  Also see David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1995), and Susan L. Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1995).

19  For an alternative account of the breakup of Yugoslavia, see Herman and Peterson, “The Dismantling of Yugoslavia.”

Edward S. Herman is professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania and has written extensively on economics, political economy, and the media.  Among his books are Corporate Control, Corporate Power (Cambridge University Press, 1981), The Real Terror Network (South End Press, 1982), and, with Noam Chomsky, The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press, 1979), and Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 2002).  He is a co-author of The Politics of Genocide (with David Peterson), recently published by Monthly Review Press.

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