Pettigrew: “The Celebration of Genocide Suggests that the Crime Can Be Repeated”

Pettigrew: “The Celebration of Genocide Suggests that the Crime Can Be Repeated”

David Pettigrew in front of the “White House” at Omarska concentration camp where prisoners were tortured and killed. The flowers that were laid at the white house were in memory of the approximately 700 who were murdered there. The plaque on the left has details about the camp, the 3,000 detainees, and the 700 murdered. The plaque on the right is from a group of friends from Serbia, which reads Omarska, “Never Again.”

For more than a decade, Philosophy Professor David Pettigrew has been advocating for the victims of atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia on March 1, 1992, triggering a secessionist bid by the country’s Serbs backed by the Yugoslavian capital, Belgrade, and a war that left about 100,000 dead, including the mass slaughter of many Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces. In addition, the crimes committed at the town of Srebrenica have been ruled to be genocide.

While all his efforts are part of a personal commitment to human rights and social justice, Pettigrew’s work on Bosnia also has an academic dimension, expressed through his lectures, publications, film screenings, and other work. He also teaches a holocaust and genocide studies course at Southern.

This summer, Pettigrew again visited the Balkans, and was interviewed Aug. 22 by the Radio Sarajevo’s Benjamin Redžić on topics including the issues of genocide denial; the prospects for reconciliation in the region, and the rise of the far right and neo-fascism in Europe and the potential for further genocidal actions. The English transcript appears below:

1. Last month, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that the state was partly responsible for the deaths of 350 residents in the town of Srebrenica. How do you comment on this judgment?

I find the Judgment of the Supreme Court of the Netherlands in this case to be woefully inadequate. The judgment seems to rest on a very narrow conception of “liability”. The Judgment, in the end, concerned only those 350 men who were forcibly expelled–by Dutchbat (a Dutch battalion that was part of a United Nations peacekeeping force in the region) — from the refuge of the battery factory. After being expelled, the men were separated from the women and children, and were eventually executed. This liability for 350 men can be seen as inappropriately limited because the Dutchbat unit was, according to its assignment, responsible for the Srebrenica “safe area” that had been so designated by United Nations Resolution 819. If the Dutchbat unit was responsible for the safe area then the Dutch government should be responsible for all of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, and not only 350 victims as this Judgment concludes.

However, the Judgment would only find the State liable for those actions of Dutchbat for which the State had “effective control.” The Judgment determined that the Dutch government’s “effective control” was limited to the time following the fall of Srebrenica when civilians sought refuge on the Dutchbat base. For example, the Dutch State was not held liable for the failure to insure that convoys with humanitarian aid would reach the safe area, for the fall of Srebrenica, for the Dutchbat abandonment of their “blocking positions” or for surrendering their weapons.

The liability of the Dutch government is further limited by what I consider to be a perverse calculus. The judgments (of the District Court, the Appeals Court, and the Supreme Court) found that Dutchbat unit acted wrongfully in expelling the men from the base, negatively affecting the men’s chance of survival. The Courts found moreover that the Dutch government should be held responsible for this wrongful act. However, the final judgment of the degree of liability is based on an assumption that the men would have had only had a 10% chance of survival even if they had remained inside the battery factory. The Court of Appeal had judged the State’s liability to be 30%, but now it has been reduced to 10%, by the Supreme Court of the Netherlands.

However my position is that the Dutchbat unit, and thus the Dutch government, should have been assessed to be fully liable for the 350 men as well as any women and children who were subsequently murdered following their expulsion from the base. Further, given the fact that they failed to protect the Srebrenica enclave, I believe the Dutchbat unit and the Dutch government should be liable, to some degree, for failing to protect the 8,372 victims who were murdered by the Bosnian Serb and Serbian forces. The Judgments in 2014, 2017, and 2019, have seemed to be primarily concerned with limiting and avoiding responsibility rather than holding Dutchbat and the Dutch government accountable. Frankly, I believe that approach is shameful. The only redeeming virtue of the judgment is that it found that Dutchbat acted wrongfully in expelling the men from the base, and that the government was financially liable for that wrongful act. This fact seemed to provide some consolation to the Mothers of Srebrenica whose loved ones were murdered.

But perhaps such a limited conception of liability is not entirely unexpected given the constraints on other legal processes related to the genocide and other war crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for example, achieved a very small number of genocide convictions, and only a handful of life sentences. In general, the ICTY handed down relatively lenient sentences, and allowed early release for many of the convicted.

These limits introduced as part of the formal legal process, whether at the ICTY or the Dutch court system, show the need for alternative approaches to support the survivors through restorative or reparative justice. Serbia and Republika Srpska should be held responsible for the Srebrenica genocide. Their leaders should recognize the genocide and provide compensation for the survivors.

2. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are those who believe that denying genocide must be sanctioned by law. Recently, High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina Valentin Inzko said that this may happen soon. Are you a proponent of this idea?

I have been recommending for years that genocide denial should be criminalized and prosecuted in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a concrete step toward state-building and toward regional stabilization. This would require the creation of a national law prohibiting genocide denial. So it was indeed encouraging to hear the High Representative state, on July 11, that he was working to implement a law on genocide denial and that he hoped it would be in place by July 11, 2020, coinciding with the 25th anniversary commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. It is not clear how he would do so since he has avoided using his wide-ranging “BONN” powers until now, except in certain cases when he lifted bans on politicians. Further, as soon as news of the High Representative’s comment was publicized, Milorad Dodik suggested that a law against genocide denial would bring new efforts for the secession of Republika Srpska.

Nonetheless, this is a profoundly important goal and I am definitely a proponent of criminalizing Srebrenica genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a law against genocide denial would recognize and respect the legal rulings of the international courts that have judged the crimes committed at Srebrenica to be genocide. In addition, as in the case of laws against Holocaust denial, such a law would respect the memory of the victims. One hopes that such a law would prevent the kind of casual and routine denial of the genocide that occurs in Republika Srpska and Serbia, denial that is intended to cause psychological harm to the victims, prevent refugee return, and destabilize Bosnia and the region. Such a law would also presumably delegitimize the Commission on the Srebrenica genocide that has been formed by Republika Srpska.

But what complicates this discussion is that Bosnian Serbs have been convicted of war crimes other than genocide. So I believe there should be a more comprehensive law against the denial of those other crimes, such crimes against humanity, or violations of the laws and customs of war. Republika Srpska also formed a commission last year to study “the truth” about the siege of Sarajevo, which is a form of revisionist history and denial. But with respect to the siege of Sarajevo, Radovan Karadžić, for example, was convicted of the crimes of murder, unlawful attacks on civilians, and terror, as violations of the laws or customs of war, and of murder as a crime against humanity.

In addition to the law against genocide denial I believe there should be a national law against the glorification of convicted war criminals.

David Pettigrew in the private Muslim cemetery (Stražište cemetery) in Višegrad, where the Bosnian Serb authorities had ground/removed the word “genocida” from the memorial, and Pettigrew was restoring the term in a protest in March 2014. Photograph by Marketá Slavková.

3. The last few days have been the focus of regional publicity for the anniversary of Operation ‘Storm’. For Croatia, this was a key fight in defense against the aggressor. For Serbia, it was ethnic cleansing. What was Operation ‘Storm’?

“Operation Storm” seems to have a complicated place in the history of military offensives. I still remember reading the news reports of Operation Storm when I was in Italy at that time. Essentially it was a counter offensive launched in August 1995 with the aim of regaining territory lost in the Krajina and elsewhere. Further, there is a certain extent to which Operation Storm allowed Bosnian forces to regain momentum in a push to the east toward Banja Luka. I think the analysis is difficult today because there is an unfortunate extent to which the recent commemoration of Operation Storm comes during a time of the resurgence of ultra-nationalism within Croatia. One should also recall that prior to the joint efforts surrounding and following Operation Storm, the Croatian forces committed atrocities against Bosniaks and their culture in Western Bosnia as part of their goal to establish a kind of “greater Croatia” in Western Bosnia; a “Herzeg-Bosnia”. The accused in the Prlić case were convicted of war crimes as part of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the creation and operation of Herzeg-Bosnia within Bosnia. Whatever its virtues might have been for reversing Serb aggression both in Croatia and Bosnia, the commemoration of Operation Storm in Croatia and the ensuing discussion obscures the fact that there were two main international aggressors against Bosnia from 1992-1995: Croatia and Serbia, a bilateral aggression whose legacy continues to destabilize the region and to delay Bosnia’s access to the EU and NATO.

4. Will true reconciliation between the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Balkans occur when everyone acknowledges that someone has committed crimes on their behalf?

I still remember Munira Subašić stating at a conference in Sarajevo, in 2005, that there would be no reconciliation without justice. And part of achieving a sense of justice would be for the political leaders of Republika Srpska and Serbia to disassociate themselves from their ultranationalist predecessors who organized and committed war crimes. Further–as you suggest–the achievement of justice would require that they recognize the crimes that were committed in the most public way possible, and also empathize with the suffering of the victims and the survivors. Given the rising tensions in the region, this is a time when we need genuine leaders to emerge — statesmen and stateswomen — who would take responsibility for what occurred, express remorse, and work to foster the reconciliation that is so sorely needed. The destabilizing situation in Bosnia stems precisely from the outright denial, by political leaders in Republika Srpska and in Serbia, that genocide and other war crimes were committed. Milorad Dodik has said that the Srebrenica genocide and the siege of Sarajevo will not be taught in schools in Republika Srpska because they did not happen. The Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić, refuses to acknowledge the Srebrenica genocide.

I believe that the High Representative should condemn the discriminatory prohibition against memorials for the victims in Republika Srpska. Memorials for the victims are prohibited but memorials for the perpetrators permeate the landscape in Republika Srpska. The High Representative has not seemed to be very effective but he nonetheless has the responsibility for overseeing the peace. He should take initiatives to encourage reconciliation by facilitating the installation of memorials for the victims in locations where they have been prohibited in Republika Srpska, such as in the Prijedor area. There is a memorial to the perpetrators, for example, at the site of Trnopolje concentration camp, and a Bosnian Serb Veterans Association has occupied one of the camp buildings and established a memorial room there. At the same time, survivors are not permitted to install a memorial at Omarska. This year, in an act of resistance, the organizers displayed a temporary plaque and set up a temporary memorial in the White House where prisoners were tortured and murdered. But they should be allowed to install a permanent plaque and a permanent museum in memory of the victims. This is a human rights violation and a violation of Annex 7 that needs to be addressed by the High Representative.

It was an honor for me to participate in the commemoration at Omarska this year on August 6. I gave a speech at the commemoration in which I pledged my continued efforts to insuring that a permanent plaque and a permanent memorial museum will be installed in memory of the victims and the survivors. This is a matter of basic human decency that must be resolved. Providing for memorials for the victims would be acts of justice that would provide the possibility of reconciliation. Giving up in this effort is not an option.

Pettigrew speaking at the commemoration program at Omarska in August 2019. Photo credit: Satko Mujagić.

5. As we await reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the rest of the region, far-right or neo-fascist policies are strengthening in the Western world. What is the cause? Should we be afraid? How to combat this?

The continuing rise of far-right and neo-fascist political parties across Europe is a matter of great concern. From “Alternative for Deutschland” in Germany (AfD) and “Freedom Party of Austria,” to the “Movement for a Better Hungary,” to the “National Front” in France, to the “Golden Dawn” in Greece, these parties are white supremacist, anti- immigrant and anti-Muslim in their core beliefs. Similar parties and movements have emerged from the south in Italy to the Scandinavian countries in the north. We have learned that human beings are highly susceptible to political propaganda. From Hitler to Pol Pot, from Slobodan Milosevic to Hutu Power leaders in Rwanda, propaganda and hate speech have been effective tools to turn a population against a perceived threat. The consequences have been catastrophic. The perceived threat in Europe today–the one that is created and manipulated by the far-right–seems to be the arrival of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. In the past decade there have been anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim terrorist attacks, for example, in Norway and in New Zealand, in which the terrorists were inspired, in part, by Serbian ultra-nationalism and specifically by Radovan Karadžić. It was disturbing and tragic when in the days following the Ravnogorski movement marching in Višegrad March 10, 2019, there was a terrorist attack on the Mosques in New Zealand. While the Ravnogorski movement may not have the influence of the other far right parties mentioned earlier, Serbian ultra-nationalism has had a clear influence on anti-immigrant movements and violence in Europe.

Yes we should be concerned. We need to respond to the “far right” and to the “neo Fascists” by clearly articulating and defending our own core values regarding the crucial importance of human rights, of religious and cultural diversity, of democracy, and of the rule of law, for a peaceful and humane future. In some cases, especially in Bosnia, extremist groups, such as Ravnogorski Pokret, should not be permitted to gather and march in places such as Višegrad where their uniforms, chants, and songs are psychologically harmful to survivors and threaten further violence.

6. After the Holocaust, it was said: it will never happen again. After the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the same was said. So it happened again. By when will it be repeated?

Genocide does not occur in a vacuum. The preparation for genocide takes time, and requires ultranationalist propaganda and dehumanizing hate speech that develop over time, provoking fear and hatred of a targeted group within a society. Propaganda and hate speech are usually wielded by opportunistic, ultranationalist politicians, who gain followers and influence through such tactics.

In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, such propaganda and hate speech has been referred to as the rhetoric, politics, or discourse “of the 90s.” However, it is a matter of grave concern that due to the inaction of the Office of the High Representative, ultranationalist rhetoric has emerged once again. Today we see genocide denial, and the glorification of war criminals in Republika Srpska, practices that condone and even celebrate the war crimes that were committed. Hariz Halilović has written that such a celebration of genocide is a new stage of genocide that he refers to as “triumphalism.”

This “triumphalism” in Republika Srpska that celebrates the genocide condones the violence and suggests that the crimes could be repeated. This is a threat to the peace to which the High Representative needs to respond decisively.