Youth Initiative for Human Rights
Podgorica Youth Summit 2021

Engaging Youth in the Fight Against Genocide Denial

Written by Velma Šarić & Josephine Mintel, Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC)

It should not be controversial to condemn genocide denial. Yet, more than a quarter-century after the genocide in Srebrenica, denial has become more deeply embedded in parts of Bosnian society with each passing year. The struggle against genocide denial thus emerges as one of the most pressing issues that must be addressed through civil society, activism, and youth engagement.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled in final and binding verdicts that the crimes committed in Srebrenica in July of 1995 were acts of genocide. That summer, military forces from Republika Srpska executed over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys and evicted around 25,000 women, children, and the elderly from the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica. In Bosnia and Herzegovina and across the region, the devastating impact of these atrocities continues, their scars still manifest. To build permanent peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the denial of these crimes cannot be overlooked. Over the last 26 years, denial of the Srebrenica genocide and revisionist myths have fueled intolerance among Bosnian citizens.

Open dialogues between activists from different backgrounds, like those facilitated through YIHR’s Youth Summit, give young people the opportunity to discuss these issues and develop creative solutions to combat denialism. Genocide denial is much too common in the highest echelons of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political milieu, particularly in the Serbian entity Republika Srpska. Promoting understanding between young people of different creeds and cultures and supporting grassroots activism against denialism are some of the greatest tools for countering its insidious spread.

A recent report from the Srebrenica Memorial Center found that between May 1st, 2020, and April 30th, 2021, there were 234 instances of genocide denial in regional media and public discourse.  Most of these instances occurred in Serbia (142), followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina (60), and Montenegro (19). The report concluded that the three most common tactics used to deny the genocide in Srebrenica were disputing the number and identity of victims, challenging the integrity of international courts, and historical revisionism to promote ethnonationalist narratives.  

This qualitative analysis does not even include the most egregious recent episodes of denial, which occurred in late July of this year. The outgoing High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, amended the criminal law on July 23rd to make genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals punishable with up to five years in prison. Although there were several previous attempts to create legislation against genocide denial, each one was blocked by the representatives of Republika Srpska. In the aftermath of Inzko’s decision, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, blatantly rejected the criminalization of denialism, claiming the law marks the entire Serbian people as “genocidal.” The National Assembly of Republika Srpska also passed a law on “non-implementation” of the high representative’s decision. In a statement, the assembly said: “the institutions of the Serb Republic will not cooperate with… bodies of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the implementation of the decision of the High Representative.” It is unequivocally clear that genocide denial is thrusting Bosnia and Herzegovina deeper into the kind of political quagmire that has stymied its democratic progress towards more sustainable peace.

In post-conflict communities, prosecuting war crimes holds perpetrators accountable and validates victims’ pain and suffering. Denying the genocide in Srebrenica directly interferes with this process. Claiming that the crimes never occurred, rationalizing the crimes, or dismissing their scale constitutes another direct assault on the families and survivors of the Srebrenica genocide. Portraying the perpetrators as heroes instead of criminals deepens the moral injury of these atrocities and perpetuates survivors’ suffering.

Growing ethnonationalist politics and policies in Republika Srpska have turned back Bosnia’s proverbial clock. In 2004, Bosnian Serb authorities issued a report in which they took responsibility for their actions in Srebrenica and apologized to relatives of the victims. At that time, the government of Republika Srpska said it “sympathizes with the pain of relatives of the Srebrenica victims and expresses sincere regrets and apologies over the tragedy which has happened to them.” However, in 2018 Republika Srpska’s assembly rescinded the 2004 report, eschewing responsibility for their actions.

Then in 2019, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity set up two new supposedly independent commissions – the Independent International Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of all Peoples in the Srebrenica Region in the Period from 1992 to 1995 and the Independent International Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo in the period from 1991 to 1995 – to “determine the truth” about wartime crimes in Srebrenica and Sarajevo.

In July 2021, the first of the two commissions accused the ICTY of staging politically biased trials of Bosnian Serb political and military leaders, claiming that Srebrenica was not a genocide but rather a “horrific consequence” of their refusal to surrender to Bosnian Serb forces. Menachem Z. Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, said that the report grossly claimed that not only was the ICTY “illegitimate and politically biased,” but that almost all war crimes trials were, beginning with the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

These recent events make it clear that the fight against denial is ever-more pressing as part of our collective responsibility to the victims and survivors of genocide. Since the genocide in Srebrenica over a quarter-century ago, victims and survivors have led the fight for human rights, truth, and justice. A recent call to action in the Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report rings true: those victims and survivors cannot and should not fight alone. Through policy, journalism, art, and political activism, we can fight for truth and transparency regarding the genocide in Srebrenica.

Since 2019, our organization, The Post-Conflict Research Center (PCRC) and the Srebrenica Memorial Center have been cooperating on several joint annual projects and activities through an official Memorandum of Understanding. In 2021, we hosted the second annual Srebrenica Youth School, a week-long educational event organized at the Srebrenica Memorial Center for youth activists and artists, and students, both from around the region and from all over the world. The school supports critical thinking about transitional justice, dealing with the past, and preventing genocide and mass atrocities by engaging youth in a series of masterclasses, keynote speeches, and workshops. We aim to make “Never Again” a reality. Educating youth about genocide, and Srebrenica in particular can help nurture a new generation in Bosnia and Herzegovina who can come together and openly discuss these sensitive topics instead of eschewing responsibility through denialism. We are also committed to fact-based journalism: our publication Balkan Diskurs gives a platform to young and aspiring journalists from the region for objective, fact-based, and ethically responsible reporting, which is essential for creating a culture of tolerance and combating denialism.

At PCRC, we are proud to support the activities of the 2021 Youth Summit in Podgorica, hosted by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. Events like these, which call for the commitment of young people to take a stand in the fight against genocide denial, give us hope. They show us that there is room in our collective memory for facts and responsibility, and above all, empathy.