Balkan genocides without genocidal intentions

For the former Yugoslavian states – acquitted of genocide only because of insufficient international justice – the major pending issue is still reconciliation.

This article was originally published in Spanish in El Mundo on 4 February.

When in May 2011 Serbia finally arrested the fugitive Ratko Mladic, the general of the Bosnian Serb forces accused of the Srebenica massacre, among other crimes, many Serbs protested, acclaiming him as a hero and defender of the Serbian people.

In his native Kalinovik, an insignificant area of the isolated eastern Bosnia (ethnically cleansed of Muslims by the Serbian paramilitaries or chetniks under the command of Mladic and other thugs supported by the regime in Belgrade at that time), people hung out banners which read: “Uzeli ste nam orla, ali su ostali gnijezdo i drugi.” (You took our eagle, but the nest and others like him remain).

If there is something which unites Balkan peoples, it is the incapacity of too many public figures to even contemplate the suffering of others.

These quasi-religious ceremonies based on hero worship and the idea of a wounded nation are repeated every time the workings of international justice cause individuals to be arrested or freed, or when a verdict is reached related to the wars of the 90s. It occurred when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia released Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general who led Operation Storm, Vojislav Seselj of the Serbian Radical Party; and the Kosovans Ramush Haradinaj and Fatmir Limaj, all of whom received heroes’ welcomes from their respective governments and crowds in Zagreb, Belgrade and Pristina.

The only differences are the flags, the slogans and the symbols. If there is something which unites Balkan peoples, it is the incapacity of too many public figures, both from civilian and most certainly religious spheres, to even contemplate the suffering of others, of next-door neighbours, in the various fratricidal wars – which often included interference from foreign powers – during the 20th century. This is quite often because that neighbour and his family are not even there anymore to tell their sorry tale. And all too often some of these leaders flatly deny any guilt, á la Le Pen senior, whether it be over Srebenica, Vukovar or Krajina.

The sad thing is that the International Court of Justice’s verdict acquitting Croatia and Serbia of their mutual accusations of genocide will probably lead to little change in the landscape. Both sides can talk of their victory and defeat – or victory within defeat, which is such a classic Balkan concept. The court confirms that Serbian forces and others from what was then the Yugoslav National Army perpetrated acts within Croatia which satisfied the material definition of genocide, the actus reus according to the Convention on Genocide (such as torture, large-scale massacres, sexual violence, etc.). And the tribunal confirms that, in turn, the Croatian forces involved in Operation Storm, led by Gotovina, among others, perpetrated similar acts of violence on the Serbian population of Krajina. But, as was to be expected, the judges ruled that there was a lack of proof of the key element, the dolus specialis, or specific intent to “destroy wholly or in part” the other national, ethnic or religious group. 

The International Court of Justice’s verdict acquitting Croatia and Serbia of their mutual accusations of genocide will probably lead to little change in the landscape.

The standard of proof needed to attribute genocidal blame to states, with the implications this would have in terms of reparations and a historical burden such as that borne by Germany, is almost impossible (it has to be “absolutely conclusive” and “the only reasonable conclusion”). Whether it is justifiable or not, this legal requirement has created the absurd situation in which, of the wars in former Yugoslavia, to date only Srebenica has been recognised as a genocidal crime, despite the fact that the same dynamics of ethnic cleansing, destruction, and sexual violence were suffered by all groups – although it has to be said that the Bosnian Muslims, hemmed in by the designs of both Tudjman and Milosevic, bore the biggest brunt in terms of casualties. It is an absurdity to confirm the existence of systematic acts of genocide, which formed part of various plans of extermination aimed at the Other (the former neighbour), while finding that none can be proven as such. 

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of Srebenica. Decisions such as the one made on Tuesday show that international justice can never be sufficient. In the Balkan states, which are now meandering their way towards the EU, the major pending issue is still reconciliation. And with it a definitive burial of nationalist discourse: in the words of Stefan Zweig, “that pestilence which has poisoned the flower of our European culture”, but which today, owing to some primitive attraction, has once again enraptured so many Europeans.  


Click on the hyperlink to read the Western Balkans chapter of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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