BIDDING WITH THE NUMBER OF
VICTIMS AND DENIAL OF GENOCIDE:
AN ONGOING GOVERNMENTAL POLICY
The second seminar within the project "Promoting a Social
Climate Propitious to Transitional Justice and Culture of Non-impunity" realized with
the assistance of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights
Novi Sad, November 26, 2011.
Students of the Faculty of Philosophy in Novi Sad were lectured about
transitional justice - a complex issue of major importance to Serbia's youth - by Izabela
Kisic, executive director of the Helsinki Committee (the role of the media in
transitional justice and conflict maintenance in a post-conflict society), Morgiana
Brading, representative of the ICTY Belgrade Office (trial before ICTY and their
effects), Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee (expert testimonies
before ICTY, especially on demographic losses in the 1990s wars in ex-Yugoslavia) and
sociologist Janja Bec Neumann (international experience in overcoming trauma in
post-traumatic and post-conflict societies). Seska Stanojlovic, vice-president of
the Helsinki Committee, acted as a mediator.
Izabela Kisic underlined that the end of a war and armistice did
not in themselves imply an end to a conflict, general acknowledgment of a peace agreement
and citizens' self-initiative for neighborly relations. This is why a government should
develop and implement an all-inclusive concept of transitional justice. "Such a
concept is non-existent in Serbia. All we have are several non-governmental organizations
concerned with transitional justice. War crime trials before domestic courts the same as
those before ICTY produce no public effect, that is they in no way influence public
opinion," she said.
According to her, a concept of transitional justice implies digging into
both origins and a background of a conflict. "In Serbia, this is an Achilles' heel of
the government and elite in the first place. The media have also missed the opportunity to
raise the issue. And it was the media that should have raised it because of their role in
the warring propaganda: the same as in preparations for the war and its coverage, the
media should now play a crucial war in the peace-building process and establishment of
neighborly relations with the nations the war had been wagged against. According to OSCE
standards the media are integral parts of the peace-building and reconciliation
processes," she said among other things.
In Serbia, however, the media are often fueling conflicts and creating
tensions. "One can hardly trust Serbian media when they address, say, the crimes
committed against Serbs because no media outlet has ever distanced itself from propaganda
stories against Croats, Muslims and Albanians in 1990s. That is why stories nothing but
deepen conflicts with our neighbors," she said, adding, "Besides, the media do
not back the people working on reconciliation. For instance, actors Dragan Bjelogrlic and
Sergej Trifunovic all of a sudden became 'traitors' for wearing T-shirts with gen. Jovo
Divjak's portrait at the opening night of their movie in Sarajevo. Screening of the movie
'Oh, Boy, Montevideo' in Bosnia-Herzegovina could have been in the function of
reconciliation. Instead lead actors were forced to justify themselves for the 'incident'
in which they were involved. And the movie missed the opportunity for reconciliation for
good," said Ms. Kisic.
To start with Morgiana Brading outlined the history of the
tribunal in The Hague and its main mechanisms. She reminded that more than 140,000 persons
lost their lives during the wars in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia along with several
millions who were forced to leave their homesteads. Up to now, 4,000 witnesses for the
prosecution testified about grave breaches of humanitarian law, including the crime of
genocide. This number included not only victims but also perpetrators and experts.
ICTY has pressed charges against 161 persons up to now. Out of this
number 16 charges were dropped, thirteen people have been freed or died during trials, 16
trials are in process, 17 cases await for appeal and yet another two are in the pre-trial
stage (Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic), detailed Ms. Brading.
So far 64 persons have been found guilty and sentenced to over one
thousand years in prison in total, and two of them have been given life sentences. More
than 20 accused (mostly of the crimes committed in Prijedor and genocide in Srebrenica)
confessed. The trials before ICTY contributed to the international humanitarian law as
sexual crimes against both women and men were for the first time established as crimes
Ms. Brading also emphasized ICTY's contribution to the "historical
records" of brutal wars wagged in these territories with millions of pages of
This huge archive is already treated as the most precious and probably
the most important part of ICTY's heritage, said Sonja Biserko. "Some topics
in this treasury are most specific, others are multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary. For
instance, law schools all over the world already quote specific cases over their courses
in international criminal law. Some sentences have been printed in textbooks, while
numbers of legal magazines are investigating special cases, jurisprudence and practice of
ICTY and other similar tribunals," said Ms. Biserko.
Sonja Biserko specifically focused on scientific and even more lay
debates on the number of war victims. We have witnessed numerous historical and political
manipulations in these debates given that different parties in the conflict had insisted
on their figures and estimates. "Just watch the ongoing debate on demographic losses
in Yugoslavia in WWII. Political controversies accompanying it are overemphasized. The
more so commendable is the work of demographers, pioneers in this area, who have compiled
information for the tribunal in The Hague and developed statistical models for scientific
research," she said.
Bidding with the number of victims and denial of genocide still embody
the governmental strategy, said Janja Bec Neumann. Any state and any nation with
persons who have bloodied their hands have problems with acknowledging the truth and for
them, as a rule, this process takes time. Recently a monument with 67,000 names of
Holocaust victims with their names inscribed was erected in Vienna. The figure stands for
one-third of Jewish population in Austria till WWII. After WWII more than 400,000 persons
in Belgium were accused of collaboration: 56,000 of them were put on trial and 262
executed. However, it was only in 2009 that the Belgian government apologized to victims
for these crimes committed by Belgian policemen in tandem with SS troops.
Ms. Neumann specifically addressed the "trans-generational trauma
transfer" phenomenon: a "wall of silence" between parents and their
children erected after a traumatic experience and so transferring trauma from one
generation to another.
Referring to other countries' experiences in overcoming domestic
conflicts she invoked South Africa and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission the effect
of which was amnesty for some 200,000 people. In Rwanda, for instance, where the number of
potential culprits is so large that trials would be practically impossible tribal meetings
at which perpetrators and victims come face to face are organized in villages. She also
touched on the experiences of Uruguay, Guatemala and Argentina from different angles.
In the ensuing debate the students participating in the seminar were
mostly interested in the developments in ex-Yugoslav wars. They wanted to learn more about
the trials of the accused before ICTY, notably the trial of Vojislav Seselj, as well as
about "ethnic empathy" dependent on context - either with perpetrators or