Denis Džidić: The failure to face the past has created room for manipulation

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was no end of the war, there were no winners, there were no losers, there is only a frozen conflict. I would appreciate a regulation as a civilised attempt to prevent the denial of the genocide committed in Srebrenica, murders committed in Kravica, in Kazani, and, eventually, an attempt to prevent the Government of Sarajevo Canton from allocating money to the accused and their defence. In my opinion, this would be the first step.


Denis Džidić is the Executive Director and Editor of the Balkans Investigative Research Network (BIRN) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He joined BIRN in August 2008. Prior to this, he worked as a journalist, Deputy Editor and Chief Editor of the website Before he joined BIRN, Denis had also worked as a journalist of the daily newspaper Oslobođenje and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, both in Sarajevo and The Hague, where he reported on transitional justice and war crimes. The topic of the adoption of legal regulations prohibiting denial, minimisation, trivialisation, contestation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population is inextricably linked to the context in which such regulations are required, but also the way in which they are adopted. Given all the peculiarities of war and post-war circumstances in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we spoke with Denis about the impact of such peculiarities on the process of transitional justice and resulting consequences of (the failure) to face the past, the role of the international community and freedom of speech. The recurring topic of this interview is the examination of opportunities for creating a more stable future, but also ensuring accountability for things that have (not) been achieved and things that need to be achieved.

L. G.: What does the media landscape look like when it comes to denial of war crimes? In what kind of context does this discourse take place?  

D. Dž.: In my opinion, there are basically two things, war narratives and the threat of terrorism, topics that dominate the media at the moment, namely the part that nationalist political parties insist on, since it is a fantastic way not to deal with corruption, the fact that youth are leaving the country and unemployment, but to rather deal with some imaginary threats linked to terrorism or emotional issues linked to the war, unprocessed crimes, victimisation and spreading of fear and hatred. This is just another way of winning the elections. Populism and nationalism are effective in case of less informed, less educated, traumatised persons. I therefore believe that nationalist narratives and the same political parties will prevail for a long time in this region and interests will remain unchanged. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a fertile soil for denial, minimisation, trivialisation, glorification and justification of war crimes and war criminals for several reasons. In my opinion, if we analyse the process of transitional justice in theory, in addition to prosecuting persons responsible for war crimes, the process should have involved at least some mechanisms for achieving justice and establishing the truth by various fact finding committees and adoption of laws that would ensure material and immaterial reparations for the victims. I believe that Bosnia and Herzegovina has focused only on prosecuting war criminals, often in a very poor way (due to various reasons, which include political pressure and poor choice of chief prosecutors). Bosnia and Herzegovina is a fertile soil only due to the fact that it failed to adopt a systematic approach to facing the past and transitional justice, so that there is a vacuum that makes manipulation possible.

L. G.: What are the consequences of such a vacuum?

D. Dž.: The fact that we have not established a minimum of historical facts that might be incorporated in teaching materials in the education system for children at schools throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the most profound implications. As we know, it is mission impossible. It prevents children from learning about the war at schools, forcing them to obtain such information from the media and their parents, which are two poor and unreliable sources. Various studies or TV shows for children show that our children have an enormous gap in knowledge about what happened and, as opposed to their parents, who lived in relatively diverse regions, they live in isolated monoethnic regions and do not meet other ethnic groups due to the ethnic cleansing. The narrative they heard from their parents and victims therefore remains unchallenged and they feel the need to separate themselves from the others, the enemies. The reason for this is, of course, lack of knowledge and fear. Everything we know and do not know results from this. Additionally, the most terrible thing when it comes to transitional justice is the fact that we have not even secured a minimum of dignity for the victims by adopting and implementing laws on victims of torture and missing persons. Victims of sexual violence are facing a strenuous and degrading process to exercise their rights to reparation, which is an issue that has been regulated in an inadequate manner, especially in Republika Srpska.

L. G.: Given this situation, to what extent is it important to have in place a law on prohibition of denial, minimisation, trivialisation, contestation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population in a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina?

D. Dž.: First of all, I would say that it is important for any country, it is an elementary and civilisational issue. No society should permit hate speech and denial of established crimes under the pretense of freedom of speech. This is even more important in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the fact that we have achieved so little in other areas of transitional justice. Reparations are no longer important for many persons, because it is too late. I primarily mean victims, since many of them are already elderly persons. However, when it comes to denial of war crimes, it is much more important to have such a law, since whole generations will get educated based on various interpretations of the past or will lack information. Given our political elites, which are almost exclusively nationalist, this issue is absolutely being abused.

L. G.: Initiatives for adopting these legal regulations at the state level and in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina have been unsuccessful so far. What is the reason for this in your opinion? Is it the time when they were proposed, their quality or the general attitude when it comes to regulating this segment?

D. Dž.: I don’t think that it is related to the period in which they were proposed or the quality of the draft. Such a law would not be supported by political parties in Republika Srpska, irrespective of the period. We might obtain a quasi-solution, such as restrictions as to what is prohibited or what type of established facts, but that is not an improvement, but rather a deterioration. An excellent example of this is the Criminal Code in Serbia, which prohibits the denial of genocide, but it does not include judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). It rather refers to crimes established by Serbian courts and the International Criminal Court. In this respect, I believe that we could adopt a law to prohibit the denial of genocide in Rwanda, but not here. I don’t think that political elites will ever agree on the adoption of a law on prohibition of denial, minimisation, trivialisation, contestation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population.

L. G.: What is the role of the Office of the High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR)? Should the OHR address this issue, if, on the one hand, there is no political will and if, on the other hand, there is an urgent need for legal regulations? 

D. Dž.: It is difficult to assess what the international community is willing to do. A lot could be done. For example, if you take a general look at the greatest successes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the period in which Bosnia and Herzegovina was truly achieving progress in terms of stabilisation and rule of law, it was the period when the country had active high representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Office of the High Representative that imposed certain solutions, primarily in relation to prosecuting war crimes, has contributed to progress here in an extraordinary way. Such crimes would never have been prosecuted if the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the War Crimes Chamber of the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina had not been established. I therefore think that the OHR can and should be actively engaged, it was established for this purpose. Whether the situation will deteriorate at a certain moment, whether we will have a more active community again, whether we will have an OHR that will impose a legal solution – these are issues that we can only discuss now.               

L. G.: What is the reason for the lack of progress in case of the OHR? There were announcements that a new law would be imposed by the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, but it did not happen.   

D. Dž.: I believe that the international community, the OHR, had a specific attitude towards Bosnia and Herzegovina at a certain moment. At a certain moment, they assessed that Bosnia and Herzegovina was passive in the process and that what was happening was that the OHR was dictating the pace, changes, exercising pressure, imposing laws. I assume that, according to this assessment, they were of the opinion that we were sufficiently stable, that there would be no war and conflict and that it was time for us to learn how to independently tackle democratic processes. This was probably the approach, but I disagree with it. I believe that everything would have been fine, if the High Representative had adopted a decision on constitutional reform that would have facilitated the decision making process.

L. G.: If we take a hypothetical look at this issue, if denial, minimisation, trivialisation, contestation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population had been prohibited by law back then when we had the initiative in 2011, could it have really prevented some of the things that happened – a student residence building in East Sarajevo named after Radovan Karadžić or a mural dedicated to Ratko Mladić, the impossibility to build a monument in Kazani?

D. Dž.: I do not think that these could have been prevented, but am rather certain that it would have happened. I believe that around 2008, we had significantly different narratives. Back then, there was no such nationalist tension. Left-wing parties were much stronger back then. There was no Milorad Dodik back then, there were left-centre parties, while now there are radical right-wing parties. In theory, it had been possible. But it would have in any case required international intervention. What kind of intervention? Maybe a much milder one, maybe back then it could have been resolved without imposing a law.

L. G.: Can the legal regulation of this area be defined as restricting or endangering the freedom of expression?

D. Dž.: No, the one has nothing to do with the other. I believe that rights and freedoms in essence go only as far as they do not restrict the rights and freedoms of other persons. So, you cannot tell me that I am restricting your right to movement, because there are restrictions as to how fast you may drive. That’s it. I believe that it is a wrong logic. I believe that people saying it know this, but it sounds so good and enables them to fight this regulation.

Sarajevo, 2019/2020

Forum Civil Peace Service (forumZFD) and TRIAL International, organisations that have been active in the field of transitional justice and facing the past, initiated a constructive dialogue about the necessity to adopt a law on prohibition of denial of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population in 2019. In an attempt to establish and hold open discussions with various actors and relevant groups about this topic, but also a wider dialogue and to raise awareness of the public at large and politicians about the topic of facing the past, a researcher, Lejla Gačanica, conducted a series of interviews with relevant persons as part of the publication Calling War Crimes by Their Right Name – Nazivanje ratnih zločina pravim imenom. The publication can be accessed by using the following link.