Speech Crime in the Balkans – Philip Hammond

Speech Crime in the Balkans

Determined to impose its skewed and self-flattering narrative about the Balkans, the West is stoking tensions in the region

According to recent media reports, Bosnia stands ‘on the brink of crisis’, perhaps even ‘on the brink of war’. It is a ‘powder-keg waiting to explode’, we are told. Unless the West adopts the right policies ‘the Balkans will explode again’.

Journalists and commentators are taking their cue from Christian Schmidt, the latest appointee to the office of ‘High Representative’, a post created at the end of the war in 1995, when Bosnia was made an international protectorate. In his first report to the United Nations since taking office, Schmidt said that Bosnia is ‘facing the greatest existential threat of the post-war period’.

There is a degree of hype here — war is not imminent — but there is a serious political crisis. It was provoked by the Office of the High Representative itself, in its efforts to shore up crumbling Western authority in the region. And in response to that crisis the US and European governments are raising the stakes further, by threatening to impose economic sanctions and increase their military presence. Schmidt has recently visited Washington, London and Berlin to talk up the need for action. Britain has already appointed a new special envoy to the Western Balkans.

Composed of two semi-autonomous entities — Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina — and with a three-person presidency representing the main ethnic groups, Bosnia is the dysfunctional product of more than a quarter century of Western state-building. But naturally Schmidt was not about to question the role of Bosnia’s international overseers. Rather, he said the crisis resulted from ‘persistent, grave challenges’ by the Bosnian Serbs, led by Milorad Dodik, who have withdrawn from shared state institutions and challenged his authority as High Representative. Such unruly assertions of independence, said Schmidt, ‘endanger … the peace and stability of the country and the region’.

Predictably, reporters have provided an uncritical echo. ‘Bosnian Serbs are playing with fire’, Der Spiegel told its readers, ‘Dodik is stoking the nationalist flames’. ‘Serb separatist provocations must not be tolerated’ declared the Guardian. Journalists have shown virtually no curiosity about why Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs might be rebelling against the rule of the international community’s Grand Panjandrum.

At best, some reports have told half the story — namely, that the crisis was precipitated by Schmidt’s predecessor as High Representative, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko. In July, Inzko used his executive powers to impose a new law against genocide denial, with up to five years imprisonment for anyone who ‘condones, denies, grossly trivializes or tries to justify a crime of genocide’. Specifically, he had in mind the ‘genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the course of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ in the 1990s. The angry reaction of Bosnian Serb leaders was immediate.

If reporters get even this far, that is where the story ends. The Serbs were tried and convicted of genocide in the Western media in the first few months of the Bosnian war, so journalists see no need for further questions.

But why, one might wonder, did Inzko feel moved to enact a law that, by his own admission, he knew would provoke such a reaction? After more than a decade in the post doing not very much of note, why did Inzko decide in his final week to light the fuse of the current crisis?

Inzko told the Financial Times that he ‘searched his soul’ and did what his ‘conscience dictated’, an explanation the paper apparently found perfectly satisfactory. What he did not mention — what almost nobody mentions — is that conscience dictated the imposition of ‘Inzko’s law’ the day after the publication of a major international report which concluded that ‘neither an individual crime of genocide nor genocide in general took place in Srebrenica’.

The report came from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Sufferings of All Peoples in the Srebrenica Region between 1992 and 1995, which was instituted by the Bosnian Serb authorities but staffed by international (mostly Western) academics and experts. Led by Gideon Greif, an eminent Israeli historian of the Holocaust, the commission’s claim to independence carries a high level of credibility.

The report certainly did not whitewash the actions of the Bosnian Serbs in Srebrenica in 1995, finding that ‘the execution of 2,500–3,000 military prisoners, including several hundred male civilians … does constitute a war crime’. However, Greif and his co-authors attributed the majority of deaths — estimated at 4,000–5,000 — to ‘legitimate military actions’ against the 28th Division of the Bosnian Muslim army. In short, the Commission said that it ‘does not consider the killings around Srebrenica as genocide’ but as a military engagement followed by the criminal execution of prisoners.

In placing Srebrenica in the context of a bitter civil war in which atrocities were carried out on all sides, rather than as the outcome of a one-sided campaign of genocide, the Greif commission confirms the findings of another landmark study of Srebrenica, authored by Cees Wiebes for the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation. As Wiebes notes, in 1995 the designated UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica was also a military base, where the US helped clandestine arms supplies to reach the Bosnian Muslim army, enabling it to ‘carry out hit and run operations against, often civilian, targets’ in nearby Serbian villages. Rather than implementing some planned extermination, the Bosnian Serbs launched a military offensive aiming to reduce the town’s capacity to act as a base for further attacks.

Dodik has said the new law violates the right to free speech. He is right. Endorsing the findings of Greif’s report is now a criminal act in Bosnia. Yet whenever Srebrenica is understood in context, rather than as a moral lesson about the need for the West to police the behaviour of others, its characterisation as genocide is called into question. Similar conclusions have been reached by US Balkans specialist Robert Hayden, for example, and by legal scholar William Schabas. Their views are now also proscribed.

The stated intention of the High Representative and other international actors in Bosnia is to promote reconciliation. But on the West’s terms this means the Bosnian Serbs are told to see themselves as uniquely evil and to view their country as an illegitimate, ‘genocidal’ and ‘sectarian entity’, in the words of one British academic.

Even after so many years, the West relentlessly insists on promoting its divisive and distorted narrative about the Bosnian war, whatever the consequences, because that provides its only source of moral authority to keep interfering in the region.

Philip Hammond is visiting professor of media & communications at London South Bank University

This article first appeared in CounterPunch (https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/12/10/speech-crime-in-the-balkans/)