Move by international body set up to implement post-war peace deal follows attempts to downplay 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Bosnian Muslim women, family members of victims of Srebrenica 1995 massacre, gather prior to the burial of their relatives at the memorial cemetery in village of Potocari, near Eastern-Bosnian town of Srebrenica. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images
The top international official in Bosnia has outlawed denial of genocide in the Balkan country to counter attempts by Bosnia’s Serbs to deny the scope of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Europe’s only post-second world war genocide.
Valentin Inzko, the outgoing head of Bosnia’s Office of the High Representative, or OHR, introduced the changes to the country’s criminal code on Friday, bringing in prison sentences of up to five years for genocide denial and for the glorification of war criminals, including naming of streets or public institutions after them.
The OHR is the top international body overseeing implementation of the peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. It has the authority to impose decisions or dismiss officials who undermine the post-war ethnic balance and reconciliation efforts among the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim, Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats.
The international court of justice and the international criminal court for Former Yugoslavia declared the Bosnian Serb killings of more than 8,000 Bosniaks that took place in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war as genocide. However, Bosnian Serb officials and neighbouring Serbia have refused to accept the designation.
Inzko, an Austrian diplomat, said in a statement: “Hate speech, the glorification of war criminals and revisionism or outright denial of genocide and war crimes prevent societies from dealing with their collective past, constitute renewed humiliation of the victims and their loved ones, while also perpetuating injustice and undermining interethnic relationships.
“All of this causes frustrations, makes the society chronically ill, and prevents the emergence of desperately needed reconciliation.”
Inzko said he decided to use his powers after waiting for years for Bosnia’s politicians to act. He cited a refusal by the Bosnian Serb assembly to withdraw decorations awarded to three convicted war criminals.
“The situation has gotten worse and is now getting out of hand,” he said, warning that lack of acknowledgment was “sowing the seeds” for new conflicts. “Therefore, I believe that it is now necessary to regulate this matter with legal solutions.”
The genocide in Srebrenica happened after Bosnian Serbs took control over the eastern enclave in July 1995. They executed Bosniak men and boys and dumped their remains into mass graves which were later dug out and reburied to cover the crime. The victims’ remains are still being unearthed and identified.
Bosniak politicians and the relatives of the victims hailed Inzko’s decision, which was swiftly rejected by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who is a member of Bosnia multi-ethnic presidency and the top politician in the Serb entity called Republika Srpska.
Dodik threatened to launch a process of “dissolution” of Bosnia, the Klix news portal reported. “Republika Srpska rejects this, genocide did not happen, Serbs must never accept this,” he said.
Dodik has repeatedly criticised the OHR and the west as biased against Serbs in Bosnia. The UN security council on Thursday rejected a resolution put forward by Serb allies Russia and China that would have immediately stripped the powers of the OHR in Bosnia.
Both Bosnian Serbs and Serbia, which backed the Bosnian Serbs during the war, have called the massacre a crime, refusing to acknowledge it was genocide.
Bosnian Serbs also have honoured their wartime leader Radovan Karadžić and military commander Ratko Mladić as heroes, although both have been convicted of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Hague-based tribunal. Murals featuring Mladić and Karadžić can be seen in many towns in Republika Srpska, which is the name for the Serb entity in Bosnia.
Inzko said his decision was not aimed at nations but individuals. Recognising the guilt of individuals allows people to unburden themselves from the weight of the past, and move on towards a more promising future, he said.
In Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, the prosecutor’s office said it would monitor any statements by individuals or groups and act in accordance with the legal changes.
Kada Hotic, from the Mothers of Srebrenica group for relatives of the victims, said such a law should have been brought earlier. “I welcome the decision anyway,” she said. “Without acceptance, there is no forgiveness, and I will not forgive until someone pleads for forgiveness.”
The US embassy in Bosnia called Inzko’s move “a starting point for more concrete debate and steps by local actors when it comes to practical implementation”.
“We must underscore that the genocide at Srebrenica is not a matter of debate, but of historical fact,” the embassy said in a statement. “It is time to truly turn to a future based on peace and mutual trust.”
The human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatovic, also welcomed the high representative’s action.
“We must protect the truth, promote reconciliation and educate future generations,” Mijatovic tweeted.
Inzko is leaving his post on 1 August, following his resignation in May after 12 years in office. He will be succeeded by Christian Schmidt of Germany.
“My conscience dictates that I have no right to end my term while the convicted war criminals are being glorified,” Inzko said.
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