Transitional Justice and the Right to Truth and Memorialization in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Transitional justice requires that the international aggression, genocide and other war crimes committed against and in Bosnia be honestly recognized, and that the human rights to truth and to memorialization be observed, for the sake of justice and, perhaps most significantly, to prevent a repetition of the atrocities. Transitional justice incorporates restorative justice practices, including memorials and commemorations to facilitate a firm foundation for peace and democracy, and holds the rule of law as a foundational value. The human rights to truth and memorialization must be seen as integral parts of a strategy for transitional justice and state-building in Bosnia, along with accession to EU and NATO membership, and with constitutional and electoral reform guided by democratic values.

Now, for the sake of the right to truth, it must be recognized that Bosnia endured the consequences of genocidal intent, not only in Srebrenica, but throughout Republika Srpska. The ICTY Trial Chamber in the Karadžić judgment determined that there was a common plan “to permanently remove the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory.”Republika Srpska was created, from 1992 to 1995, through a systematically eliminationist undertaking, the genocidal intent of which can be discerned from a comparison of the census data in numerous municipalities from 1991 and 2013.

In Foča municipality, for example, the census data indicates that the Bosniak population was reduced from approximately 49% in 1991, to 6% in 2013. In the Krajšnik verdict we read that, “all traces of [Bosnian] Muslim presence and culture were wiped out of Foča.” In neighboring Kalinovik municipality census data indicates that the Bosniak population was reduced from 30% in 1991 to 2% in 2013. The founding genocidal intent can be inferred from the overwhelming impact on the targeted population. Such a reduction can also be found in Višegrad, from 64% to 9%. As time passes and the population ages, the numbers further decline.

In spite of such devastating consequences of the documented atrocities, victims’ associations in Foča and Kalinovik, Prijedor, Višegrad, and elsewhere in Republika Srpska, have been cruelly prohibited from installing memorials, or plaques, or from establishing museums. Such prohibitions are a part of a systematic denial of genocide and other war crimes in Republika Srpska, and a blatant violation of the human right to the truth and memorialization. Perpetrators are glorified and the leadership of Republika Srpska has gone so far as to attempt to criminalize the mere use of the term “genocide”. In another shameless attempt at genocide denial, President Dodik recently sought to block a UN General Assembly Resolution that would designate 11 July as an “International Day of Reflection and Commemoration of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica”.

In recognition of the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war crimes committed as part of the siege of Sarajevo, and of the opening of concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, and in recognition of the commemoration 27th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide on July 11, I call on the High Representative, Christian Schmidt to work with victims’ associations and to use his BONN Powers to establish memorials and museums at the former sites of concentration camps and other atrocity sites, such as Omarska (Prijedor), Barutni Magacin (Kalinovik), Koštana Hospital (Stolac), and Vilina Vlas (Višegrad), where such memorials have been forbidden or suppressed.

The international community must approach the establishment of memorials for the victims with a greater sense of urgency. Countries like Germany take a genuine approach to remembering the victims of the Holocaust. Victims of the genocide and other war crimes in BiH deserve no less. But with the political stalemate caused by Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb nationalists, the BONN Powers of the High Representative are needed to defend the right to the truth and to foster a culture of memorialization.

The leadership of Republika Srpska betrays the truth and insults the victims as it denies the atrocities and routinely glorifies convicted war criminals. At the entrance to Kalinovik, a mural of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić, protected by a steel fence anchored in concrete, welcomes visitors to the town in blatant violation of the national law against the glorification of convicted war criminals. Yet another memorial to Mladić stands in the center of the town. Hence, the prohibition of memorials for the victims at Barutni Magacin is discriminatory and an impediment to transitional justice as it provokes a repetition of the atrocities. The glorification of Mladić is intimidating and re-traumatizing for survivors, especially those whose loved ones have still not been identified.

Transitional justice requires that the right to truth and memorialization be defended through the establishment of memorials at the former atrocity sites according to the wishes of survivors. To avoid vandalism or desecration these must be protected national memorial sites, similar to the Srebrenica Memorial Center, which was created through a collaboration of survivors, allies, and representatives of the international community, including three High Representatives who made four decisions (with their BONN Powers) over the course of seven years.

But even with the establishment of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, the nearby Kravica warehouse, where some 1,300 of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide were executed, also urgently needs to be protected. Local authorities have authorized renovations to the Kravica warehouse that will remove damage caused by shrapnel and bullets. Survivors object to the renovations and protest that there is still no memorial plaque at the site. Another Srebrenica execution site, the Pilica Cultural Centre, is also at risk.

It is imperative that the right to truth and memorialization be observed to counter denial of war crimes and the glorification of convicted war criminals in Republika Srpska to prevent a recurrence of the genocide. Denial and the glorification of war criminals are seen as the surest indicators of a repetition of the atrocities. Memorials and museums must be established to educate this and future generations, and to prevent a repetition of the genocide and other war crimes. Indeed, “prevention is the first imperative of transitional justice.”

However, in the absence of initiatives supporting transitional justice, Bosnia has suffered an escalation of nationalist rhetoric and hate speech. In Prijedor, for example, an extremist group –“Only Self Respect”– equates the liberation from the Nazis in 1942 with the so-called defense of Prijedor in May 1992. This is a perverse form of denial by which they are condoning and trivializing the crimes committed against non-Serbs in Prijedor in 1992. This group and its media should be investigated and prosecuted by the competent authorities.

Now it is time for the High Representative to take all necessary action to establish memorials in Barutni Magacin, Foča, Omarska, Koštana Hospital, Vilina Vlas and elsewhere, and to remove the mural for Mladić in Kalinovik as well as other murals, plaques or statues glorifying the perpetrators. The victims of executions in Kalinovik including those whose human remains have still not been identified, such as Doctor Abdurahman Filipović, Avdija Škoro and Salko Vranović, as well as all other victims of war crimes and of the Srebrenica genocide, must not be forgotten.

3 July, 2022  KRUG 99. prof. dr. David Pettigrew, Professor of Philosophy, and Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Southern Connecticut State University, Member, Steering Committee Yale University Genocide Studies Program.