Opinion |

Why Israel Should Recognize the Bosnian Genocide

The U.S. Congress pioneered recognition of Europe’s worst massacres since the Holocaust. Now, in the face of rising genocide denial from Serbs, the far right and the hard left, it’s time for Israel to act, before it’s too late

Hamza Karcic
Hamza Karcic
Banner with faces of Bosnian Muslims killed in the genocide outside the trial of ex-Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal Court
Banner with faces of Bosnian Muslims killed in the genocide outside the trial of ex-Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic at the International Criminal CourtCredit: MICHAEL KOOREN/ REUTERS
Hamza Karcic
Hamza Karcic

In October 1943, a young man named Hamed Karčic fled the eastern Bosnian town of Višegrad. Serbian royalist guerilla forces known as Chetniks had closed in, and many Bosniaks saw the writing on the wall.

Fleeing in a hurry, Hamed was lightly dressed and did not have the time to pack his winter clothes. As he made his way with other Bosniaks through the woods and mountains to a Muslim-majority area in central Bosnia, Hamed suffered a severe cold that left him with a rheumatism which plagued him for years to come.

Bosniaks who were not lucky enough to flee suffered mass violence at the hands of the Chetnik forces with the old Ottoman-era bridge becoming the site of summary executions.

When Josip Broz Tito, the communist guerilla leader-turned-lifetime president, emerged victorious in 1945, Bosniaks were allowed to return home. Hamed rebuilt his life again in Višegrad, raising his family and living quietly as a carpenter until 1992.

In April of that year, Serb paramilitary forces once again attacked Višegrad as Bosnian Serb rebel leadership sought to secede from Bosnia and carve out a state of their own. Višegrad and other towns along the River Drina bordering Serbia had to be "cleansed" of their Muslim population for the dream of a Greater Serbia to be realized.

The Ottoman bridge over the River Drina in Visegrad, BosniaCredit: Moshe Gilad

Now, almost 50 years later, Hamed had to flee once again. He and his family rushed to leave their home before the town was fully captured by the paramilitaries. As he prepared to leave Višegrad, Hamed's mind raced back to a similar day almost half a century earlier. "I will not catch cold like in '43 again," he said to his family, went back to his house and - this time - took his winter clothes. Once again, Visegrad’s bridge was the execution site of countless Bosniaks.

Hamed and his family made it to Muslim-held areas and eventually became refugees in Germany. Twice during his adult life, Hamed had to flee from identical eliminationist onslaughts and start from scratch.

A few years ago, shortly before his death, Hamed, my great-uncle, visited my parents' house. It was a hot summer evening but Hamed still asked my mother for a blanket. The rheumatism had taken its toll but so had the predicament of Muslim life in Višegrad. Yet, by the standards of the fates of Bosniaks from eastern Bosnia, his was uncommonly lucky. Many others did not live to start from scratch even once.

The fate of Hamed Karčic is emblematic of the Bosniak experience in eastern Bosnia. Oral histories of families from eastern Bosnia are full of accounts of mass atrocities, fleeing, migrations, return and a then a repetition of the cycle of violence several decades later. But something did change.

Unlike the atrocities of 1943 which were passed down as stories within families and gained no official recognition in communist Yugoslavia, the plight of Bosniaks in 1992 won worldwide attention. Media reporting and television footage of emaciated men behind barbed wire, the siege of Sarajevo and the refugee influx into western Europe made Bosnia headline-grabbing news. Perhaps nowhere was this attention more important and consequential than in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.

More than 5000 miles away from Višegrad, this time the plight of Bosniaks was taken up by a number of U.S. legislators on Capitol Hill. What changed over 50 years was that Hamed's plight in 1943 remained family history; his and his compatriots' plight in the 1990s had become a foreign policy issue in the capital of the world's sole remaining superpower.

A Bosnian Muslim woman cries near the casket containing her relative's remains, found during a search of Lake Perucac, among the remains of 66 others at mass burial ceremony in VisegradCredit: AFP

While the George H.W. Bush and then the Clinton administrations dithered on Bosnia, an ad hoc bipartisan congressional group advocated for military intervention. Led by Senators Bob Dole (R-KS) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), the Bosnia hawks included Rep. Frank McCloskey (D-IN) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA).

The Hungarian-born Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress, and he was among the first on Capitol Hill to understand the threat posed by Slobodan Miloševic and his wars of conquest. Indeed, American Jewish senators and congressmen played a key role in supporting Bosniaks’ right to protection and Bosnia's right to self-defense.

Dole, Lieberman and other Bosnia hawks insisted that a genocide was being perpetrated against Bosniaks. A number of American legislators invoked the Genocide Convention in the hope that it would trigger both an American and an international response to end the atrocities. The pro-Bosnian camp in Congress pressed the administration to lift the UN-imposed arms embargo which prevented Bosnia from arming itself.

Lieberman consistently teamed up with Dole in sponsoring legislation aimed at increasing pressure on the Clinton Administration to do more in Bosnia. This remarkable bipartisan pro-Bosnia coalition succeeded in passing veto-proof legislation in the summer of 1995, mandating a lifting of the arms embargo. Pressure from Capitol Hill played a crucial role in prodding the White House to push for NATO air strikes in late summer 1995, and to undertake a serious diplomatic offensive - which paved the way to the Dayton Peace Accords.

The crucial role that Congress played in the 1990s in pushing the Clinton administration to ultimately intervene in Bosnia was replayed a decade later. On the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica in 2005, both the House and the Senate adopted landmark resolutions commemorating the genocide.

Bosnian Muslim refugees in an overloaded UNHCR truck on March 31, 1993 being evacuated from besieged Srebrenica. Less than four months later, Bosnian Serb forces swept into the U.N.-designated ‘safe Credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS

The US Senate resolution, co-sponsored by eight then-senators including Joseph Lieberman and Joe Biden, declared that the "policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing as implemented by Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 meet the terms defining the crime of genocide in Article 2" of the Genocide Convention. The unanimously adopted text (S. Res 134) also found that the Bosnian Serb forces had "direct support of authorities in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)."

A few days following the adoption of the Senate resolution, the House of Representatives passed a similar resolution (H. Res. 199) introduced by Republican congressman Chris Smith and co-sponsored by 39 legislators including the late Tom Lantos. Smith’s resolution passed with an overwhelming majority of 370-1. Both the Senate and the House reaffirmed in 2005 what a number of individual senators and congressmen had been saying since the early 1990s.

Yet, the significance of the full Senate and House being on the record on this issue can hardly be overstated. In fact, congressional resolutions have significantly contributed to what American journalist Peter Maass refers to as the "codification" of the Bosnian genocide.

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Unlike the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament tended to water down the language of genocide in its own resolutions. In July 2005, it resolved to commemorate the "Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide" – meaning only the mass executions in July 1995 in and around Srebrenica. A subsequent and a much-heralded resolution in 2009 urged the European Council and European Commission to mark July 11 as the "day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU."

The contrasts between American and European legislative commemorations could not have been starker.

Women from Srebrenica watch a live broadcast from the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague giving guilty verdicts for Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic.Credit: Darko Bandic,AP

Congress had consistently taken a broader definition of its scope, referring to a genocide committed over a span of three and a half years – 1992 to 1995. The European parliament narrowed it down to the month of July 1995. In fact, the European Parliament as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia likewise limited and localized the genocide to Srebrenica.

European officials' tendency to downplay the scale of the atrocities was evident in the aftermath of the recent final guilty verdict handed down to former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President of the European Council Charles Michel are a case in point. Both resorted to tweeting the #SrebrenicaMassacre hashtag, thereby avoiding the established, precise nature of the crime of genocide in Bosnia.

In the years since then, a number of parliaments have adopted resolutions on Srebrenica including Montenegro, Macedonia, Canada, Croatia, Australia and, most recently, Kosovo, leading to a wider acknowledgement of the most heinous 20th century crime in Europe since the Holocaust, but it hasn't happened in the United Nations. Following a plea by then-Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution recognizing the genocide put forward in 2015, its 20th anniversary.

The international recognition of the Bosnian genocide is essential in countering genocide and war crimes denial, not only by Serbs but by white nationalists across Europe and influencers on the hard left who were among the most vocal deniers from the start.

A woman walks past a mural glorifying former Bosnian Serb wartime general and convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic in Belgrade, Serbialast year.Credit: Darko Vojinovic,AP

Denial is, according to genocide scholar Gregory Stanton, the last and inevitable stage of genocide, lasting throughout and “always” following genocide; it is also "among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres." Bosnian-Australian scholar Hariz Halilovich describes a further creeping development of denialism especially in regard to Bosnia: "Triumphalism," or the glorification of genocide by its perpetrators, their heirs and supporters.

The imperative of international recognition is now even more pressing. A major boost for this effort at global recognition – and a particularly resonant act of solidarity – would be a Congress-type Knesset resolution commemorating Srebrenica in Israel.

Recognition is also a pressing issue because the consensus required between and within Western states to recognize the Bosnian genocide is shrinking.

The rise of illiberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, the rise of Islamophobia in Europe, the rise of the far right and the anti-interventionism that animates both hard left and right all mean that the growing anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe will dovetail with the rising trend of genocide denial to ensure that the scale and scope of the atrocities are minimalized.

The window of opportunity to recognize the facts of a genocide in the heart of Europe easily within living memory is, shockingly, closing, perhaps for a generation, or more.

Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo. Twitter: @KarcicHamza

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