Srebrenica: 18 years later, quest for justice goes on

Thousands of Bosnians again marched cross-country on July 11, along the path that refugees took when they fled the massacre at Srebrenica on that day in 1995. They arrived at the ​Potočari memorial cemetary outside the town for a ceremony where 409 more bodies were laid to rest. Among the interred remains were those of a baby girl who was born during the massacre; the mother took refuge at the Dutch-run UN "peacekeeping" camp outside the town, and gave birth there. She was told the baby was stillborn and would be buried; then the beseiging Serb forces overran the camp, meeting no resistance from the "peacekeepers." The baby ended up in a mass grave—one of several used to hide the bodies of more than 8,000 of Srebrenica's men and boys, summarily killed by the Serb rebel troops.

This year's commemoration brought the total of identified victims to 6,066. There are 2,306 more who remain missing. Despite the fiction of a unified Bosnian state, the formerly Muslim-majority town of Srebrenica remains under the control of the autonomous Bosnian Serb Republic; those who marched there for the ceremony were mostly the town's former residents who have since the war been living in territory controlled by the central government at Sarajevo. Since 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has convicted 45 Serbs, 12 Croats, and 4 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) of participation in war crimes during the 1992-5 conflict, which is believed to have cost some 100,000 lives. A total of 161 have been convicted. (NPR, IOL, HNGN, CSM, Al Jazeera, AP, July 11) Many Bosniaks deride the Serb Republic, which controls some half of the territory of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a "genocide creation."

On the same day as the massacre memorial, a genocide charge was reinstated against former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic at the ICTY in The Hague, related to a campaign of killings in seven municipalities at the start of the war in 1992. The ruling means he now faces 11 charges, including a further charge of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre. The reinstated charges, which had been dismissed last year for a supposed lack of evidence, include the shelling of Sarajevo during the long siege of the city. (BBC News,, July 11)

When Karadzic began his defense in October, he emphasized his background as a psychiatrist and said that rather than being in the dock he should be rewarded for his efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the Yugoslav conflict.

Instead of being accused for the events in our civil war, I should have been rewarded for all the good things I've done, namely that I did everything in human power to avoid the war; that I succeeded in reducing the suffering of all civilians that the number of victims in our war was three to four times less than the numbers reported in the public; that I proclaimed numerous unilateral ceasefires and military containment and I stopped our army, many times, when they were close to victory; that I constantly sought peace and accepted four out of five peace agreements; that I advocated and initiated and implemented the humanization of the conflict by applying all measures of humanitarian action; that, in addition to my many presidential duties, I personally supervised the supply of humanitarian aid, ceasefires, and the honoring of the international law of warfare. And thus, I was the address for many successes of humanitarian actions. Also, I proclaimed and implemented many acts of mercy.

And of course he accused the Bosnian Muslims of staging attacks on themselves in the shelling of Sarajevo, even suggesting that they had used mannequins to trick the international community into believing there were more causalities. Testifying on his behalf was Col. Andrei Demurenko, Russian chief of staff for the UN "peacekeeping" mission in Bosnia, who asserted that the Bosniaks were the aggressors in the war. (Jurist, Oct. 17, 2012)

These statements loan credence to what has been termed the law of diminishing sensitivity—by which the scale of atrocities reduces the perpetrator's sense of guilt.

The eerie timing recalls last year's proceedings, which came two days after ICTY prosecutors re-opened the war crimes case against Ratko Mladic, Karadzic's military commander, after repeated delays. The proceedings resumed with emotional testimony from a Muslim survivor of a 1992 massacre at the village of Hrvacani, where his father was killed at makeshift prison camp that Mladic's troops had built to intern the residents. Mladic also faces genocide charges in the Srebrenica massacre. (IWPR, July 10, 2012; Jurist, May 17, 2012)

In addition to Mladic's Bosnian Serb Army, atrocities were carried out by paramilitary units supplied by Serbia proper and Montenegro, then both part of "rump Yugoslavia." The war crimes court for Bosnia and Herzegovina, run by the Sarajevo government, in March convicted a former paramilitary unit commander from Montenegro on multiple counts of murder, torture, rape and looting committed during the the Bosnian war, sentencing him to 45 years imprisonment. While fighting for the Bosnian Serbs, Veselin Vlahovic AKA "Batko" allegedly killed 31 people, raped countless Bosniak and Croat women, and tortured and robbed non-Serbs in a Sarajevo suburb. This was the longest sentence ever issued by the Bosnian war crimes court. Vlahovic was acquitted on six other counts.

Also in March, the ICTY sentenced two former Bosnian Serb officials each to 22 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Former Serb Republic interior minister Mico Stanisic, and Stojan Zupljanin, his subordinate, faced charges of persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, and torture of Muslims and Croats, as part of a plan to establish "a Serb state, as ethnically 'pure' as possible." They were each found guilty on counts of persecution, murder and torture, while Zuplijanin was additionally convicted of extermination.

In January, the Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) court sentenced a former Bosnian Serb police officer to 20 years in prison for his role in the Srebrenica massacre. Bozidar Kuvelja was found to have actively aided in hunting down the Muslim men rounded up at killed at Srebrenica. In December, the ICTY sentenced former Bosnian Serb army commander  Zdravko Tolimir to life on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre. Also in December, the ICTY upheld the life sentence of Milan Lukic, a commander of the White Eagles paramilitary group, convicted of crimes that included burning more than 100 people alive in Bosnia.

But not all the prosecutions have been successful. In December the BiH war crimes court acquitted two Serb defendants of involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. Two other Serb defendants were acquitted by the BiH court in October.

In May, the ICTY acquitted Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, two high-ranking officials of Serbia's State Security Service who were charged with directing war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia through paramilitary proxies.

In November, the ICTY overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals for crimes against humanity and war crimes against Serb civilians committed during a 1995 offensive in which the Serb-held enclave of Croatia was taken. The five-judge appeals chamber ordered the immediate release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.  Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said the ruling was "an important moment for Croatia," and proved that "Operation Storm" was a just war rather than an ethnic cleansing of Serbs.

Charges at the ICTY are still pending against Goran Hadzic, the last suspect to be tried by the court. He is accused of having committed crimes against humanity as a Serb paramilitary commander in Croatia. (ICTY press release, May 30; Jurist, March 29; Jurist, March 28; Jurist, Dec. 4; Jurist, Nov. 16; Jurist, Oct. 17; Jurist, Oct. 4)

The acquittals of Jovica, Simatovic, Gotovina and Markac were met with dissent by some of the ICTY's own jurists. ICTY judge Frederik Harhoff (a Dane), sent a letter to the president of the court, Theodor Meron (an American), leaked to the Danish press in June, accusing him of establishing a legal precedent in the interests of the "military elite of prominent countries." He specifically mentioned Israel and the United States. (AFP, July 2)

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  1. Expanded war crime convictions for Serbian ex-officials

    The UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) on May 31 expanded the convictions and increased the sentences of two individuals who helped to murder and deport non-Serbs during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The two, Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović, are former Serbian security officials.

    The IRMCT’s Appeals Chamber dismissed the duo’s appeal of their convictions for various war crimes, including aiding and abetting murder and forced deportation of Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Instead, the chamber granted the prosecution’s appeal and found that the men carried out their crimes as part of a “joint criminal enterprise.” The court also increased the pair’s prison terms from 12 years to 15 years. The decision came after the two were found guilty in a 2021 retrial after their initial acquittal in 2013. (Jurist)