25 Years after Srebrenica

Narrative Framing and Genocide Denial
Feature27.08.2020Adnan Huskić
Gravestones are lined up at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia
Gravestones are lined up at the memorial cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, BosniaAP Photo/Kemal Softic

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has collected a vast amount of factual evidence on the horrific events that took place in July 1995 in Srebrenica and has persecuted many of those who were responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, 25 years later, the denial of the Srebrenica genocide continues and is even on the rise. A similar pattern of genocide denial can be observed in connection with the genocide against the Armenians or the more recent violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

At an event organized on 29 July 2020 renowned experts sought to answer at least some of the questions relating to genocide denial and narrative framework 25 years after the Genocide in Srebrenica.

The nature of crimes is seeking and provoking the concept of collective moral responsibility. Genocide is not something we think and process as an individual crime. These were crimes of collective nature, and “collectiveness” is a problem:

Whereas many argue it is illogical, I argued that it is legitimate when linked to social psychological way of dealing with consequences of collective crimes.” -  Sabina Čehajić Clancy, Professor of Psychology, University Stockholm

This means that opinions and behaviors are heavily shaped by the society norms. The process of dealing with the past, and an ‘enormous body’ of evidence and documents, is not only of legal and political importance, but of psychological as well. Because at the end of the day it is the individual that is faced with this body of evidence, and this is basically where the denial enters as a psychological process.

One of the researches has shown that denial of 2nd and 3rd generation of people, who basically had nothing to do with war atrocities, are the result of the lenses of social identities. The problem occurs at the moment when the information is perceived as a threat to the group that individual belongs to and/or identifies with. Importance of social identity leads to self-perception – meaning that is not easy to accept the painful truth and to accept the implications of that truth which include openly accepting the guilt. Implications along these lines involve protective mechanism of identity and as a result we have the denial of genocide. Hence, protection of a group and oneself as a member of that group results in denial.

Denial seeks to minimize harm and relativize acts through numerous mechanisms: “It did not happen at all / If we had not done it, they would have done the same to us / It was not as it they said, etc.”  Different levels of research have shown that people resort to moral disengagement strategy[1] – and denial is one of them. The problem in BiH, looking psychologically, is precisely in the context of social identity (ethno-national identities) which are very important to individuals, and exactly the problem occurs because we are ‘fighting’ individual differences. Those who are oriented more towards civic identity and are not embedded deeply in idea of social identity, are ready and capable of acknowledging genocide. This problem was recently confirmed by the last research with young people, 2nd and 3rd generation, which indicates that young people are very high identifiers, and social identity means a lot to them.

Executive Director of BIRN, a European Press Award winning media outlet Denis Džidić argued that monitoring cases before the courts and ensuring much needed level of transparency is an absolute must. Genocide cases carry more complexity than some individual cases of killing while trials that are directly related to genocide usually take a long time to complete. Therefore, media must act as a mediator, follow, and ensure that victims have their voices heard. This is especially necessary if state institutions often neither have the capacity nor the will to send journalists to cover these cases in continuity who possess the required level of expertise in legal proceedings. The only way in which transitional justice might take hold is to have a systematic manner of covering trials from the beginning to the end – and all of this in hope to reduce revisionist and denialist tendencies.

Concerning the transitional justice mechanisms and the lack stronger engagement by BIH institutions and state apparatus BiH has become a country where criminal prosecution is an end, when in fact a genocide demands greater level of responsibility of all institutions. He continues by saying that in BiH today we do not have this kind of reduction.

Political elites must show political strength and willingness as well as capacity to create a fact-based history (referred to in school curricula) and much more inclusive ideas on how to establish a reconciliation process in BiH. Basis for this could be a comprehensive database of everything that happened in the criminal prosecutions and this remains until today 25 years after the Genocide in Srebrenica probably the only positive aspect.

Concerning the social and psychological processes which might facilitate one’s acknowledgment of responsibility inter-dialogue group contact is important, and it is important to be aware of the fact that victimhood is shifting. Emphasizing that my group is the only one who suffered is an attitude that acts as an inhibitor to reconciliation.

Yet another important term is self-affirmation. This term explains what happens when we affirm social identities vs. the individual one. There are stark differences that collective identities shape, make social political reality worse, because society in general is exposed to social identity affirmation and therefore, we have situation like this after 25 years – denials of genocide on the ground.

The extent to which material reparations could be the driver behind genocide denial efforts was largely dismissed. We should rather speak of more a non-material reparations and symbolism that is much more important. Recent research that shown how victims and victimhood actually desire to move forward with the former perpetrator group, toward reconciliation – the public acknowledgment of truth as it happened and symbolic reparation, not the material forms of reparations, is what is pushing them towards a more positive and prosocial outcomes. Importance of symbolic steps was reiterated by Edin Forto, former prime minister of Canton Sarajevo. He recalls how during his time in the office the delegation from his party which was multi-ethnic in character paid respect to Croat victims of Doljani Massacre as first such non-Croat political party delegation ever to attend a commemoration. This move left such a profound impact on their otherwise political opponents from Croat who appreciated their being there and never failed to mention this afterwards.

Education was identified as tremendously important segment in dealing with the past. There are currently attempts to reform education policies, or more precisely prosocial processes in relation to narrative and genocide denial. Research indicates that 2nd and 3rd generation were becoming more friendly to the opposite side if there is a positive story to be told. Story of Srđan Aleksić from Trebinje who was killed while trying protect his Bosniak neighbor from drunk soldiers of RS Army or Tomislav Buzov who was killed for objecting to illegal kidnapping and later execution of Muslims passengers on the train from Belgrade to Bar that was stopped in the municipality of Štrpci, are just a few examples of such positive stories.

And therefore, if on both sides the change occurs in the history regarding immorality (representing good vs. evil), the post-conflict societies might be boosted if our understanding become oriented to think that ‘there is always the other side to the story, the story of guilt’.

Recognition of the other side and positive stories along with the intervention in the way we interpret specific historic events might affect positively post-conflict society in terms of dialogues, and inter-group contacts.


[1] Moral disengagement is a term from social psychology for the process of convincing the self that ethical standards do not apply to oneself in a particular context. This is done by separating moral reactions from inhumane conduct and disabling the mechanism of self-condemnation. Thus, moral disengagement involves a process of cognitive re-construing or re-framing of destructive behaviour as being morally acceptable without changing the behavior or the moral standards.