'Serbia was a terrible tragedy, but it wasn't genocide'

Mladic conviction rekindles Holocaust historians’ debate on definition of genocide.

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Dr. Efraim Zuroff
Dr. Efraim Zuroff
Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

One of the world’s best-known Nazi hunters, Efraim Zuroff, welcomed the punishment levied on Serbian nationalist Ratko Mladić, but called his conviction for genocide in Srebrenica politicized and unjust.

Zuroff’s claim that Mladic committed atrocities, but not genocide, has exposed him to criticism by a leading expert on the Holocaust.

A United Nations tribunal on Wednesday handed down a sentence of life in prison to Mladić for numerous war crimes and atrocities, including "perpetrating genocide" in the Bosnian town in 1995 when he was a leader of Serbian troops in the wars that erupted in the Balkans following the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed there by Mladić’s troops, who allowed nearly all the women to leave.

Zuroff, an Israel-based historian of the Holocaust who is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for Eastern Europe and has led efforts to prosecute dozens of Nazi war criminals, welcomed the punishment given to Mladic by the three-judge panel at the Hague-based court. The court is formally known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

“What happened at Srebrenica was a terrible and murderous war crime and a tragedy for which Mladic and all other responsible should receive the maximum legal punishment,” Zuroff told JTA. “But it wasn’t genocide,” he added, citing the sparing of the women and girls.

Menachem Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and a lawyer who teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities, defended the verdict in an op-ed he published Wednesday in Tablet Magazine.

To Zuroff, the absence of female victims at Srebrenica demonstrates that the perpetrators “wanted to commit and carried out a war crime, ethnic cleansing. But not genocide.”

The verdict was “politicized” as was the indictment against Mladić, charged Zuroff. He said the United States sought to convict Mladić of genocide for political reasons after failing to recognize the Rwandan genocide as such in time.

The court convicted Mladic on 10 of 11 counts, acquitting him of the charge of genocide in Bosnian municipalities outside Srebrenica. He also was convicted of targeting civilians in bombing conducted by his troops of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. Mladić was seized by Serbian police in 2011 near Belgrade and flown to The Hague to face trial.

On Srebrenica, the court determined he had “participated in a joint criminal enterprise to eliminate the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by killing the men and boys of Srebrenica and forcibly removing the women, young children and some elderly men from Srebrenica.”

Rosensaft, who has clashed with Zuroff publicly before in the wake of Zuroff’s criticism in 2015 of the genocide charge against Mladic in Srebrenica, again dismissed Zuroff’s argument in the op-ed, calling Zuroff and others who do not regard the Srebrenica massacre as genocide “wrong” from a legal point of view.

Rosensaft cited previous rulings by the UN tribunal for former Yugoslavia stating that the forces orchestrating the Srebrenica operation “intended to destroy the Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica as such.”

In the op-ed, Rosensaft disagreed with the definition of genocide provided by Professor Steven T. Katz, founding director of Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies, as the “destruction of all human beings who belong to a particular ethnic, national or religious group without exception.”

Rosensaft noted an assertion by Nehemiah Robinson, the late director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs of the World Jewish Congress and a leading authority on the UN Genocide Convention of 1948, who said that the term applies even if victims “constitute only part of a group either within a country or within a region or within a single community, provided the number is substantial… It will be up to the courts to decide in each case whether the number was sufficiently large.”

And the courts, Rosensaft wrote, “have spoken clearly and unambiguously.” Zuroff disagrees.








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