Michael Dobbs

Defining genocide

Defining genocide

Few matters are more fraught with emotion in Srebenica, and Bosnia as a whole, than the question of whether the cold-blooded executions of around 8,000 Muslim men by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 should be qualified as "genocide." I experienced this myself when I referred to the event as a "massacre" in a conversation with a Srebenica survivor. "It was not a massacre," Hatidza Mehmedovic shouted at me angrily. "It was a genocide."

I must admit that I find it difficult to use the word genocide, which conjures up images of the Holocaust. The word appears to have been invented by the Polish-born American jurist, Raphael Lemkin, in 1944 in relation to Hitler’s campaign of extermination against European Jewry. The word derives from the Greek genos, meaning "race," and the Latin suffix –cida, meaning "killer." In the popular culture, at least, when we talk about "geno-cide," we think about the killing of an entire race or ethnic group. Genocide is the most horrific of crimes.

My reluctance to use the word genocide, particularly in casual conversation, stems in part from the way in which the expression has been abused by all sides in the former Yugoslavia. Muslims, Serbs, and Croats accuse each other of genocide on a routine basis when talking about alleged war crimes committed against them. It is important that outsiders avoid the inflammatory rhetoric that has become so poisonous and commonplace in this part of the world. When we employ terms like "genocide," we need to be careful to explain exactly what we mean, and use the words in a very specific context.

So what exactly did the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal mean to say when it found that "genocide" had been committed at Srebrenica in July 1995? Fortunately, there is a wealth of case law defining the term very precisely.  As used by the tribunal, the term has a narrower meaning that the intent to destroy an entire race. It can also be employed to mean the intended destruction of a "substantial part" of an ethnic group in a given location, specifically eastern Bosnia in the case of Srebrenica. Article Four of the tribunal’s statute draws directly on language from the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide to define genocide as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;  

(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its

physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Exactly what constitutes an ethnic group is the subject of a lengthy discussion in a 2001 judgment involving one of Ratko Mladic’s subordinate commanders, Radislav Krstic. The judgment defines the term "ethnic group" in this case as "the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica." The court concluded that the systematic massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim males from this community plus the forcible transfer of some 25,000 women and children to other parts of Bosnia constituted genocide within the meaning of the Genocide Convention:

The Bosnian Serb forces knew, by the time they decided to kill all of the military aged men, that the combination of those killings with the forcible transfer of the women, children and elderly would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica … The Chamber concludes that the intent to kill all the Bosnian Muslim men of military age in Srebrenica constitutes an intent to destroy in part the Bosnian Muslim group within the meaning of Article 4 and therefore must be qualified as a genocide.

The original court found Krstic guilty of genocide. In 2004, an appeals court modified the verdict to "aiding and abetting genocide" on the grounds that it had not been proven that Krstic himself had the intent to commit genocide.