Genocide Denial Ban in Bosnia Faces Major Resistance from Bosnian Serb Parties

On July 23rd, Bosnian High Representative Valentin Inzko imposed a constitutional amendment banning any denial of genocide in the country based on events of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. The amendment not only intends to counter the glorification of war criminals and questioning of wartime facts by any individual of any party. The amendment also sends a message that these behaviors will no longer be tolerated. However, prominent Bosnian Serb parties and politicians have vowed to challenge the amendment and stage a boycott on state institutions, highlighting the ongoing fraught relations between Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs since the end of the war.

Under the Bonn Powers for the High Representative, Inzko can “override Bosnian politicians’ obstruction of legislation (via a constitutional amendment) if it is vital to maintaining the peace” according to Balkan Transitional Justice. Inko made this decision based on his concern that “prominent individuals and public authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina continue to deny that acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during the armed conflict.” 

Failure to comply with the changes will result in being “punished with prison sentences ranging from six months to five years,” Inzko added. He also emphasized that the decision is “not aimed at nations but individuals (and) recognizing the guilt of individuals allows people to unburden themselves from the weight of the past (for) a more promising future.”

 While Bosniak victims of the war crimes and their relatives welcome the changes, not everyone agrees. The Bosnian Serb leader in Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has rejected the amendment. “Republika Srpska rejects this, genocide did not happen, Serbs must never accept this,” he said. Associated Press reports that many Bosnian Serbs have also “honored their wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic as heroes, although both have been convicted of genocide and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Hague-based tribunal.”

 Bosnian Serb political representatives have also announced a boycott of institutions in response to the amendment. Branislav Borenovic, one of the opposition leaders in Republika Srpska, announced the boycott at a press conference on July 26th, saying it would take effect the next day and would affect Bosnia’s joint presidency, the parliament, and the government. 

Inzko’s decision is an important step in addressing genocide denial in the country. Given that the issue of genocide denial has been ongoing since the end of the war, the amendment serves to start holding individuals accountable for any wrongdoings. It signals to war victims that authorities have plans to achieve justice. The next step will be its implementation, which in the face of a boycott by Bosnian Serb leadership, will not be a simple task. According to the Associated Press, “the prosecutor’s office (in Sarajevo) said it would monitor any statements by individuals or groups and act in accordance with the legal changes.” This task is already difficult given the tensions between various ethnic groups in Bosnia.

 Another challenge will be combatting misinformation that the prosecutor’s office may encounter. Individuals may be tempted to provide false information to retaliate against someone over wartime grievances, and with the internet, prosecutors will need to have a system to distinguish legitimate claims from false ones. One way to tackle this potential issue is via an independent commission that assists the prosecutor’s office, reviews claims, and helps manage misinformation. Outside watchdogs and organizations should also monitor the process and see how the implementation of the mandate is led by Bosnian officials while making sure there is transparency in the process. If officials use the new amendment arbitrarily, it defeats the main goal.

Bosnian Serb parties and representatives must not immediately act aggressively against measures of justice they perceive as unjust towards them as the boycott has consequences. Rather, they must be open to dialogue, willing to participate in discussions about the war, and consider the outcomes of major decisions they undertake which not only affect other parties or entities but their own as well. Bosnian authorities and the prosecutor’s office must ensure that the implementation of the amendment is transparent along with addressing and filtering misinformation. With all parties and sides involved, the new amendment is more likely to be effective and achieve its goals.