Srebrenica Twenty-Four-Years on: The Anatomy of a Genocide
The 11th of July marks the 24th anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which saw Bosnian Serb forces, commanded by Ratko Mladić, systematically murder over 7000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the UN-protected Bosniak enclave of Srebrenica.
In 2017, a UN tribunal convicted Ratko Mladić of ten charges relating to genocide, defined by the United Nations as: 'acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group', for his role in the massacre.
The brutality of the events of July 1995, alongside the inability of UN forces to protect the civilians under its care, shocked the world. Twenty-four-years later, Srebrenica has come to symbolise the brutality and violence of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnian Muslims are continuing to bury their dead today, as attempts to cover-up the genocide means that the remains of many victims have not been found.
Yet atrocities like Srebrenica do not happen overnight. Rather, they develop when racial, ethnic or religious intolerance is left unresolved or becomes manipulated by elites for political gain. In 1996 Genocide Watch founder Gregory Stanton presented a paper to the US State Department called "The Eight Stages of Genocide”. The paper suggested that genocide develops in predictable and identifiable stages that each call for different preventative measures. In 2012 Stanton added the stages of Discrimination and Persecution, creating a ten stage model describing genocide.
Contemporary parallels such as the violence and persecution faced by the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, and the systematic killing of non-Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan, make it as important as ever to recognise the characteristics of each stage of genocide and understand the necessary preventative measures at each stage.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the international community expressed its disgust, collectively we uttered that this crime against humanity should never again occur. Yet genocides have continued to emerge across the world. Understanding genocide as a multi-staged social phenomenon can allow us to recognise when the seeds of genocide are taking root and take appropriate action before it is too late.
Stage One: Classification
A society begins to use national, racial, ethnic or religious categories to distinguish between us and them. In pre-colonial Rwanda, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was based primarily on occupation and social status, not race or ethnicity. This became increasingly fixed and radicalised by European anthropologists and colonial authorities, who, based on the scientific beliefs of the time, believed the Tutsi were more closely related to Europeans than the Hutu and hence were Rwanda’s natural leaders.
In 1933, these categories were given a fixed legal basis when the Belgian authorities started issuing identity cards that categorised Rwandans as Hutu or Tutsi. Bosnian Muslims, despite being ethnically identical to Bosnian Serbs and Croats, were distinguished by their religion.
At this stage, the main preventative measure is the development of inclusive and pluralist political institutions and a social identity that transcends racial, ethnic and religious divides and unites these disparate groups. Prior to his death in 1980, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito made attempts to unify diverse nationalities under a pan-Yugoslav identity.
Stage Two: Symbolisation
Often occurring alongside classification, symbols and names are created and applied to us and them categories. The machete, a familiar tool for the predominantly Hutu Rwandan farmers, became a powerful symbol of Hutu identity and the main weapon used in the genocide.
The swastika was adopted by the Nazi Party in 1920 and alongside the red, white and black colours of the Imperial German flag came to represent Aryan identity and German nationalist pride. In Myanmar, numbers are commonly used as symbols used to identify homes and shops as Muslim or Buddhist, with '969' representing Buddhism and '786' representing Islam. It is easy for extremist groups to appropriate these symbols and use them to represent hate and extremism. Many governments try to ban or restrict the display of hate symbols outside of educational or historical context, as post-war Germany did with Nazi iconography. In 1999, the Rwandan government removed the machete from its flag because of its association with Hutu violence and extremism.
Stage 3: Discrimination
Laws, custom and political power are used to deny full civil rights or even citizenship to particular groups. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of German citizenship, banned them from marrying German citizens and prohibited their employment in many sectors, including law, academia and the public sector. The passing of the 1982 Citizenship Act in Myanmar effectively denied citizenship to the Rohingya, imposing severe restrictions on their ability to marry, travel freely and own property, and subjecting many to forced labour and arbitrary land seizure. Preventing this requires full citizenship rights for all, with constitutional protections for individual rights regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or culture.
Stage 4: Dehumanisation
Hate propaganda is used to deny the humanity of a particular group by drawing comparisons with insects, disease, vermin or parasites. This serves to overcome the natural human aversion to murder. Media such as posters, radio stations and newspapers play an important role at this stage. In Rwanda, the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) station, and the Kangura newspaper, spread propaganda comparing Tutsi and Hutu moderates to 'snakes' and 'cockroaches'. Societies, where the state has significant control over the media, are particularly vulnerable to this. Hate speech that aims to dehumanise a particular group or incite violence should be legally distinguished from free speech, and such speech should be condemned by political leaders.
Stage 5: Preparation
Those intending to carry out the genocide begin to train, organise and arm themselves. The state may facilitate this by helping to train and arm special militias or paramilitary units. The Janjaweed were Sudanese Arab nationalist paramilitary units officially brought under the banner of the security services, by former President Omar al-Bashir, to help put down rebel movements across the country and played a leading role in the genocide in Darfur.
In the early 1990s, the Serbian leadership developed the infamous RAM Plan to coordinate, arm and train paramilitary groups in Bosnian and Croatian Serb communities and unite them into an ethnically homogeneous 'Greater Serbia'. At this stage, stopping the progression of genocide requires that membership in such militias be outlawed and the rule of law upheld to prevent outbreaks of pogrom-style violence. The UN must be prepared to impose sanctions and arms embargoes in cases where state actors are complicit in the preparation stage.
Stage 6: Polarisation
Extremists target moderates and centrists through both polarising propaganda and acts of violence and intimidation. Serb news media rallied support for ethnic cleansing by presenting Bosnian Muslims as religious fundamentalists that wished to create an Iran-style theocracy in Europe. While Serb forces were besieging Sarajevo, TV Belgrade, a Serb news outlet with several million viewers, broadcast a fabricated news story based on rumours that the Muslims in the city had been feeding Serbian children to starving lions at the zoo for entertainment. At this stage, moderate politicians may be targeted by extremist terrorists or moderate governments overthrown in extremist coups. Support and protection must be given to moderate politicians and governments. Extremists that overthrow governments and take power should not be given international recognition by the UN.
Stage 7: Preparation
Group leaders begin to plan a ~ Final Solution ~ to eliminate the other group once and for all. Propaganda is used to instill fear of the victim group in the population. Leaders may argue that if we don’t kill them, they’ll kill us and push for civilians to take up arms and defend themselves. Throughout 1990 and 1991, weapons were distributed en masse to the Serb population in Bosnia to the extent that 'almost no Serbian house was without an automatic gun' according to a 1994 UN report. Arms embargoes and commissions to enforce them are of vital importance at this stage, as is the prosecution of incitement and conspiracy to commit genocide, both crimes under international law.
Stage 8: Persecution
Victims are identified and separated into ghettos or concentration camps. Property may be confiscated and victim groups may be forced to wear identifying symbols, such as the yellow Star of David for Jewish people in Nazi Germany, or white armbands for non-Serbs in Bosnia. At this point outbreaks of violence, including mass rape, become common. Civilians attempting to flee are often targeted by military or paramilitary forces, as was the case with Rohingya that attempted to cross the border into neighbouring Bangladesh. International intervention, including humanitarian aid and the setting up of safe zones for refugees, must be organised. However, these safe zones must be enforced and genuinely safe. A weakly defended safe zone is worse than none at all, as potential victims are conveniently gathered in a single location. In July 2019 the Dutch Supreme Court ruled that the Dutch state was liable for 350 of the deaths at Srebrenica as it failed to adequately defend the UN-defined safe zone under its care.
Stage 9: Execution
Genocidal attacks quickly become systematic and targeted. Mass executions of victims, now easily identifiable and gathered in ghettoes or concentration camps, become common. After overwhelming the small and lightly armed Dutch garrison, Radko Mladić’s Serb forces proceeded to separate fighting-age Bosniak men from women, children and the elderly, drive them to mass execution sites near the Serbian border and execute them, before bulldozing their bodies into mass graves.
In Rwanda, the RTLM radio station gave the signal to begin the killings using the code phrase 'cut down the tall trees'. At this stage, only rapid and overwhelming military intervention can stop the progress of genocide, through either the UN or regional alliances.
Stage 10: Denial
This stage is one of the surest predictors of further genocides. The perpetrators deny they have done anything wrong and blame any killings or violent attacks on the victims. To conceal the killings, Serb forces dug up the mass graves and reburied remains at secondary and tertiary grave-sites. Approximately 1000 victims of the genocide remain unaccounted for as the whereabouts of their remains are unknown. Denialism is common in Serb political circles. The Serb chair of Bosnia’s multi-ethnic joint presidency, Milorad Dodik, and current Srebrenica Mayor Mladen Grujicic have both described the Srebrenica massacre as a 'fabricated myth' and a 2018 poll found that 66% of Bosnian Serbs deny that a genocide took place. In response to denialism, cases of genocide must be brought to international tribunals where evidence can be presented and the perpetrators can be punished.
In 2019, Bosnian-Australian anthropologist Hariz Halilovic argued that there is a further stage, specific to Serbian nationalism, named 'Triumphalism'. At this point, war criminals and the perpetrators of genocide are actively celebrated and honoured as heroes. According to the 2018 poll mentioned above, 74% of Bosnian Serbs regard convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic as a hero.
[Title photo credits: Michael Büker, CC BY-SA 3.0.]