Nothing but the whole (text about) truth

typewritersNo complaints on this article on debates over Srebrenica! It’s a detailed, thoughtful piece, quotes a range of people, and even plugs my little book (which is a wonderful book, everyone should buy it and possibly even read it, and if you want a 20% discount off the outrageous price, use the code P5P9). But I told the journalist a lot more than what she used — this is normal — and maybe some of it could be interesting and useful, and maybe also help to make sense of that first quotation, which I think comes across as a little bit overly dismissive. So here is the complete texts of the questions and answers.

  1. How important is it for all communities in Bosnia to agree on recognizing Srebrenica executions as genocide?

If you look at it from the legal point of view, “genocide” is an attribution that is based on establishing that certain types of crimes were committed “with an intent to destroy” a group “in whole or in part.” What this means is that the attribution of genocide is not a statement about the size or scale of a crime, or how horrible it is. A “crime against humanity,” for example, is also large and horrible. It is a conclusion about the state of mind of the people who committed the crime, in particular that the crime took place as part of a policy or a goal.

On the one hand, this has been pretty well established as a matter of fact. The statements of RS political and military authorities establish that permanently changing the population, by violence if necessary, was an aim of the war. Courts have been less inclined to accept that the overall political, military and material support that Serbia provided to assist in this goal shows a genocidal intent. On the other hand, there is something illogical about the judicial record so far. It makes very little sense to say that in a violent project that had genocidal aims, and that took place over a period of three years, only one genocide was committed in only one place. This can change when the verdicts are in for Karadžić and Mladić, particularly considering the admission of the Tomašica lake evidence in the Mladić case, but there is a constraint, since the overall effect of the Tribunal’s findings in the Perišić and Stanišić-Simatović cases suggest that it is coalescing around the narrative that what happened was a legal war during which some crimes took place, as opposed to the narrative that the war was conducted in pursuit of illegal goals.

But in a way, all of this is immaterial, because only lawyers pay attention to the legal definition. The political debate over whether there was a genocide is not about these questions, but about what different parties perceive as being the consequences of an attribution of genocide. For people interested in human rights and the interests of the victims, it seems to be largely about recognition of the dignity of victims and of their status as noncombatants. For politicians representing Bošnjak „national“ parties, it is about an attribution that can be used to deploy political capital and make morally based claims. And for politicians representing Serbian „national“ parties, it is about fear of losing political capital, which is usually expressed in terms of the threat of being declared a „genocidal people“ (this is a label that exists only in political rhetoric and nowhere in law, so there is no way of being declared a „genocidal people“ and there are no consequences for being one).

What does this mean about communities agreeing? Probably it will be easier for people from different groups to agree about the facts of the case than about the meanings attributed to it. As inescapable as it is, the debate over whether the crime was a genocide or not seems to do more harm than good. If that question were set aside, and communities could concentrate on establishing facts, recognising and affirming victims, compensating people for suffering, and encouraging mutual understanding. But of course that will not and cannot happen.

  1. Comparing Srebrenica case to similar cases around the world, what do you estimate how long does it take for divided communities to reach an agreement on common truth about historical facts?

As a general rule it might be possible to say that there can be socially encompassing discussion of the facts once the point is reached that they do not matter anymore, that is, that nobody is any longer exercising political power whose career depends on what facts are established. This is at least a potential conclusion based on the experience of Germany after the Second World War. The Nuremburg trials (these after all took place under the auspices of a military tribunal formed by the victors in the war) were followed by two decades of silence – until a new generation took interest, and the ability to block their pursuit of their interest had become very weak. Once the process got started, however, it was very thorough. Germany is probably the best example anybody can point to of a society that has produced a reliable consensual account of its past, and where this process has made its way through every institution, and through education and culture.

The long time frame might look discouraging, but it may be the cost of trying to carry out memory work in a democratic society. The only faster means are authoritarian: revenge, imposed consensus, mythology. If you look at the continuing debates over Ustashas, Chetniks, and so on, it might be interpreted to mean that the effort to establish a Partisan narrative was at least partly unsuccessful: it did not involve public dialogue or recognition of victims, it left grievances and unanswered questions. When people started picking up the story later, they did it through the lens of caricatures and distortions.

If we look at what has happened in the Balkans since 2000, it might be possible to point to two more problems that will present obstacles to agreement. One is that people whose political power depended on violence during the war were not removed from power (some arrangements like Dayton guaranteed them a place in power). The other is that the largest part of the work in establishing facts has been done by people outside of the societies involved, especially through the Tribunal – a lot of people in the societies feel like they have been excluded from the discussion. If anyone listens to Tribunal proceedings in the region at all anymore, it probably happens that repeatedly hearing foreign lawyers making pronunciations like “Carra-ditch” does more to bring home the point that local people are alienated from the process than any of the evidence presented reveals facts about what happened.

  1. Do you think that it is possible for Bosnian Serbs and Muslims to share a common truth on Srebrenica? Why?

There is a very strong tendency to reduce perceptions of what people think to the things that people in high political positions say. I think that this is a terrible mistake, and that it is really necessary to go below that surface and pay attention to the conversations and interactions that people have privately, in their everyday lives. In this sense, I have been following discussions, for a long time, and it seems like there has really been a lot of change. Not all of it is visible in the way political institutions behave, but it’s there.

First of all, pure denial used to be one of the dominant narratives, but now it is completely marginal, confined to some small groups of ideologists, extremists, and Dodiks. Even the new official discourse that “there was a crime, but it was a bit smaller, or it was not genocide, or there were other crimes too” is a step away from the way that conversations were highly polarised in the 1990s. Over the last two or three years I see a lot of gestures of reaching across from all “sides.” One of my favourite examples is this song by Frenkie (Adnan Hamidović). But every year there are more of these, in music, literature, film and theatre.

The fact that culture is leading the way makes for a very strong condemnation of political, religious and educational institutions. For a long time they have either been absent or have been active in a way that intensifies differences and tensions rather than helping to resolve them. This could change, but it will change more slowly than the ability of people living in the societies to communicate with and understand one another. It may just be my idiosyncratic experience, but for me it is hard to avoid the impression that people in the Balkans (other parts of the world too!) are basically decent and understanding. And that sometimes it can take a long while for their politicians to catch up with them.

As for sharing a common truth – it might not be necessary for people to do this. What we call “truth” is an assemblage of interpretations and contexts, and in history there are not too many of these. Rather than “truth,” it is probably more important to have a set of facts that are known, that are well established, and that everybody accepts. They might continue to mean different things to people living in different contexts, but this is not a problem if people respect one another’s experiences. We spend too much time comparing the world we live in to the perfect one in our imagination, when all we really need is a world that is decent enough.

4 replies on “Nothing but the whole (text about) truth”

Hi Eric,
Thanks for posting this. A small correction — you write: “…considering the admission of the Tomašica lake evidence in the Mladić case…” Important to mention Tomašica, but those bodies were not in fact recovered from a lake. In 1992, the bodies of more than 700 Bosniak civilians from the Prijedor region were dumped in an opencast iron mine at Tomašica — part of the Ljubija mines complex(scroll down) — and covered with more than 7 metres of mine tailings and topsoil. Subsequently, hundreds of bodies were dug up from the Tomašica mine and were dumped and reburied in an another opencast mine pit in the Ljubija mines complex, called Jakarina kosa. In 2001, six years after the end of the Bosnian war, the secondary mass grave site at Jakarina kosa was discovered and 373 sets of human remains were exhumed from that site. The primary mass grave site at the Tomašica mine was discovered 18 years after the war, based on information from a conscience-stricken former Bosnian Serb Army soldier, and exhumations by the ICMP in the autumn of 2013 recovered 293 complete bodies and 197 body parts from the Tomašica site. After the exhumations, the Tomašica site was a wasteland of iron ore tailings, with deep pits left by the excavations. The catastrophic Bosnian floods the following spring (2014) filled the excavated area with water and the Tomašica mass grave site is now indeed a lake.


…[T]ribunal’s findings in the Perišić and Stanišić-Simatović cases suggest that it is coalescing around the narrative that what happened was a legal war during which some crimes took place, as opposed to the narrative that the war was conducted in pursuit of illegal goals.

Hi Eric, Great article. I do have a question on the above quote, although it may reflect my own ignorance of international law/misunderstanding that anything else! Just because the courts disagree that genocide did not take place across the entire territory of BiH from 1992-1995, I’m not sure if that is akin to the courts saying the war was a legal one, where some crimes took place, as oppose to the war was conducted in pursuit of illegal goals.

Instead, I thought the original Krajisnik verdict established that the entire Greater Serbia enterprise was an illegal attempt to create an ethnically pure Bosnian-Serb state by means of mass murder, intimidation and forced displacement, but the courts did not think the perpetrators (except at Srebrenica) had the required “genocidal intent.”

Hi, sorry to take so long to reply, busy day! I think the changed is marked in the Perišić case, where they invented the “specific direction” standard. There the key paragraph is para. 53, which says:

“Having reviewed the evidence on the record, the Appeals Chamber agrees with the Trial Chamber that the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war. The Appeals Chamber notes the Trial Chamber’s finding that the VRS’s strategy was “inextricably linked to” crimes against civilians. However, the Trial Chamber did not find that all VRS activities in Sarajevo or Srebrenica were criminal in nature. The Trial Chamber limited its findings to characterising as criminal only certain actions of the VRS in the context of the operations in Sarajevo and Srebrenica. In these circumstances, the Appeals Chamber considers that a policy of providing assistance to the VRS’s general war effort does not, in itself, demonstrate that assistance facilitated by Perišić was specifically directed to aid the VRS Crimes in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.”

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