Bosnia's ‘Accidental’ Genocide

Author: Edina Becirevic
Uploaded: Saturday, 30 September, 2006

The acquittal of Krajisnik on genocide charges challenges the very definition of this gravest of all crimes, according to a leading Sarajevo criminal justice authority writing for IWPR's Tribunal Update 470

On 27 September 2006 Momcilo Krajisnik, a Bosnian Serb leader accused of being one of the architects of ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian 1992-95 war, was found guilty of most of the charges against him and sentenced to 27 years in prison. The tribunal judges said it had been proved beyond reasonable doubt that he was responsible for the extermination, murder, persecution and deportation of non-Serbs during the war, adding that his role in the commission of these crimes was crucial. However, rather surprisingly, Krajisnik was acquitted of the most serious charges - genocide or complicity in genocide.

On first reading, this finding sends a somewhat confusing message. According to the summary of the judgement, read by Presiding Judge Alphons Orie on 27 September, genocide did take place in Bosnia - however, it was not possible to prove the intent of the perpetrators. ‘The Chamber finds that in spite of evidence of acts perpetrated in the municipalities which constituted the actus reus of genocide, the chamber has not received sufficient evidence to establish whether the perpetrators had genocidal intent, that is the intent to destroy, the Bosnian-Muslim or Bosnian-Croat ethnic group, as such,’ says the summary. The only reasonable conclusion that could be taken from this formulation is that genocide took place in Bosnia merely by accident.

The term genocide carries a heavy political burden, and scholars of genocide quite often disagree on the interpretation of the 1951 genocide convention. However, theorists from Raphael Lemkin - the Jewish lawyer who coined the term genocide - to any other contemporary scholar in this field, would agree that it simply does not happen by accident and requires organised action. In his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, published in 1944, Lemkin specifically says that genocide could - but does not necessarily - mean destruction of a whole nation. However, he says that genocide requires organised planning aimed at destroying the basic foundations of the life of the national groups. That kind of plan would target ‘political and social institutions, culture, language, economic existence, as well as the personal security, freedom health, dignity, even lives of individuals that belong to those groups’.

Another recognised expert on the subject, Helen Fein, considers that the process of proving genocide involves establishing continuity in attacks aimed at destroying members of a group in an organised manner. Fein also says that two of the preconditions for genocide are the absence of sanctions for the perpetrators and the existence of ideologies that promote the idea of genocide.

Irvin Louis Horowitz, meanwhile, suggests that genocide is the structural and systematic destruction of innocent people.

None of the leading scholars in the field mentions ‘accidental genocide’.

The judgement against Krajisnik says, ‘The common objective of the joint criminal enterprise was to ethnically re-compose the territories targeted by the Bosnian-Serb leadership, by drastically reducing the proportion of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats through expulsion.’ It is important to note that this conclusion relies on the ‘six strategic aims of the Serb people’, which were adopted by the Bosnian Serb parliament at a session held on 12 May 1992. The first of these goals - to ‘separate Serb people from another two national communities’ - was announced by Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader also indicted for genocide by the tribunal. As parliamentary speaker, Momcilo Krajisnik presided over this session, and he emphasised the importance of the first strategic goal, which he said should be supported by ethnic division on the ground.

It is noteworthy that at this meeting, both Karadzic and Krajisnik were warned by Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic, also indicted on genocide charges, that their plans could not be committed without committed genocide. ‘People are not little stones, or keys in someone's pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that... Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how Mr Krajisnik and Mr Karadzic will explain that to the world. That is genocide,’ said Mladic. It was obvious to Mladic that the plan envisaged by the Serb politicial leadership could not be put into practice without a genocide. Even though the general had no qualms about executing this genocidal plan, this quote from the parliamentary transcript shows that Serb military and political leaders were aware of the likely consequences of their actions.

In short, Krajisnik's judgement seems to go against established definitions of genocide, as well as what General Mladic believed the crime to be. The judges in the Krajisnik case said they had established that genocide took place, but were not convinced the Serb leadership intended to commit it. They appear to lean toward a school of thought which sets extremely high standards of proof for genocide. To them, the Srebrenica massacre was one ‘genocidal incident’ in the broader ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. In his book States of Denial, Stanley Cohen says that avoiding the use of the word genocide in situations of armed conflict gives other countries an excuse not to intervene. This may help explain why the term was so studiously avoided during the Bosnian war.

Edina Becirevic is senior lecturer at the Faculty of Criminal Justice Sciences in Sarajevo. This comment appeared in IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 470, 29September 2006, see

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