By Tallan Donine
Twenty-six years after the end of the Bosnian war, the country could be on the brink of disintegration. The leader of the Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb-majority governing entity, has heightened calls for secession, while nationalist Serb leaders continue to pedal wartime revisionism.
Following Bosnia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, Bosnian Serb forces led a campaign to seize territory and “cleanse” the country of its non-Serb civilians, leading to the deaths of more than 100,000 people over the next three years. Systematic and widespread abuses, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and other gross violations of human rights, were committed primarily by Bosnian Serb forces against Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) during the war. The deadliest atrocity occurred in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in 1995. The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled this horrific massacre a genocide.
The US-mediated 1995 Dayton agreement brought an end to the war, but it also established a political framework that is at the root of the country's current challenges. The agreement divided Bosnia into a rotating three-party presidential system with two governing entities, the Republika Srpska (Serb majority) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosniak and Croat majority). With the country divided along ethnic lines, some politicians have sought to exploit perpetrator-victim narratives to gain support, making post-war reconciliation and political progress particularly difficult.
Despite international and domestic court rulings, independent reports, and broad international consensus, leading Bosnian Serb politicians have continued to deny that Serb forces committed genocide in Srebrenica and to encourage genocide denial among their supporters.
Milorad Dodik, the current leader of Republika Srpska, has embraced a separatist agenda for years, stoking division between ethnic groups for political gain. Dodik's repeated public denial of the genocide in Srebrenica is central to this effort. The Bosnian Serb leader has referred to the genocide as "a fabricated myth" and declared it "the greatest deception of the 20th century." In July 2021, the Republika Srpska government sought to renew baseless doubt by funding and releasing a report further denying the extensive evidence that genocide occurred.
Since 2007, Republika Srpska representatives have blocked attempts to pass a state-wide genocide denial ban. The constant current of genocide denial led Bosnia’s international High Representative, who oversees the implementation of the Dayton agreement, to institute in July 2021 a state-wide law criminalizing genocide denial and glorification. The law angered Dodik and other Bosnian Serb politicians, who saw it as an affront to the Republika Srpska. Months after rejecting the law, in December 2021, the Republika Srpska parliament voted to initiate the Serb entity’s withdrawal from the country's joint army, security, tax, and judiciary systems. In February 2022, the parliament passed draft legislation to form a parallel judiciary body. In effect, these actions signal the potential collapse of the country’s post-Dayton political framework.
Recent incidents of concern
On January 9, 2022, the Republika Srpska hosted the celebration of an outlawed holiday marking Bosnian Serbs' declaration of independence within Bosnia, which many view as the date signifying the start of persecution of Bosniaks in the war. Drawing thousands of participants and spectators, the event included nationalist songs, a parade with security forces, and praise for convicted war criminals.
Following January 9, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe warned of spreading hate incidents, and the United Nations warned of increasing hate speech in Bosnia. Recent incidents have included neo-Nazi vandalism glorifying the Srebrenica genocide in Prijedor (where, in late 2021, vandalism celebrating convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic was inscribed at several sites); gunshots fired near mosques; and use of ethnic slurs. These incidents perpetuate the dehumanization of victims and survivors across Bosnia and spark concerns about violent escalation.
Observers have warned of the potential for armed conflict resurgence amid threats by Dodik to secede and increased nationalism. Additionally, a dispute between Bosniaks and Croats over potential reform of their political federation is expected to come to a head around the October 2022 elections, magnifying the potential for destabilization. While the country’s post-war ethnically homogenized territorial division may make it less likely that mass atrocities will recur, the climate of hate speech and nationalist-inspired division raises concerns that civilians could be deliberately targeted if armed conflict were to recur.
The international community should closely monitor the situation in Bosnia, including the proliferation of hate incidents, genocide denial, and nationalism, while encouraging parties to pursue a peaceful and lasting solution to the crisis. In addition, the international community should mitigate potential risks of violence against civilians, including by denouncing and holding accountable any politicians who attempt to incite violence and by ensuring Bosnia’s recently extended European Union-led peacekeeping force is prepared to protect civilians if necessary. While necessary political reform, including of the Dayton framework, and reconciliation efforts must be locally driven, the international community should affirm its recognition of the genocide and widespread human rights violations that occurred during the war in Bosnia and rebuke any attempts at glorification or denial.
Tallan Donine is the Elbaz Fellow at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.