EU making efforts to amend Bosnian genocide denial law implemented by Austrian diplomat

EU making efforts to amend Bosnian genocide denial law implemented by Austrian diplomat
The outgoing head of the office of the high representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, outlawed genocide denial in July. (Getty Images)
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Updated 22 December 2021

EU making efforts to amend Bosnian genocide denial law implemented by Austrian diplomat

EU making efforts to amend Bosnian genocide denial law implemented by Austrian diplomat
  • Former High Representative Valentin Inzko criminalized genocide denial in response to Serbian refusals to withdraw honors awarded to war criminals
  • The law and response to it threaten to shatter the fragile peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina; Serb politicians have threatened to withdraw from state-level institutions

LONDON: Senior EU officials are working behind the scenes to “correct” a recently introduced law in Bosnia-Herzegovina that criminalizes denial of the 1995 massacre of more than 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica.

An official from the EU privately conceded that the row over the law risks igniting a fresh conflict in the region.

The country, which was formerly part of Yugoslavia, is embroiled in one of its worst diplomatic crises in decades. Serbian politicians, including their leader Milorad Dodik, have in recent months been accused of attempting to break up the country by withdrawing Serbian involvement from state-level institutions, including the army.

The row centers around a decision in July by Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, at the time the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, to outlaw genocide denial. The high representative oversees the agreement that brought peace to the country after the Bosnian War.

Dodik argues that there is an imbalance of power in the three-member presidency that serves as the country’s head of state, and that Inzko’s actions are part of the problem and were undemocratic.

While Dodik’s moves to shift power into Serbian hands and away from multiethnic institutions have been condemned by the international community, leaked documents reveal that a senior EU official concluded that Inzko’s genocide denial law had contributed to the crisis.

Just before leaving office, Inzko made genocide denial an offense punishable by up to five years in prison. He cited the refusal by the Bosnian Serb assembly to withdraw honors awarded to three convicted war criminals as part of his reasoning.

Oliver Varhelyi, the European commissioner for neighborhood enlargement, gave a “frank assessment” that Inzko “was to blame for the current political crisis” in the country and the “delegitimization” of the Office of the High Representative. One of Varhelyi’s responsibilities is strengthening the EU’s relationship with aspiring member Bosnia and Herzegovina.

He said on Nov. 25: “While the Inzko amendments could not be disputed from the point of view of the law’s substance, the fact that it was imposed on the last day of (high representative) Inzko’s mandate had been problematic.

“Especially because it was an important decision, it should have been based on thorough debate having everyone on board. The question was now how to correct this.”

The Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims during the Bosnian War in 1995 is considered the most recent genocide on European soil. But while the word genocide is widely used internationally to describe the events, it remains a contentious issue within the state.

The complicated peacemaking process that followed the war resulted in a significant amount of power being vested in the Office of the High Representative in charge of implementing the peace deal — including the right to impose laws and dismiss officials if they threaten to undermine the postwar ethnic balance and reconciliation efforts.

In the leaked documents, Varhelyi was clear that he sees a way out of the diplomatic crisis. He urged Serbian parliamentarians to pause their plans to take back state powers in the fields of tax administration, the judiciary, intelligence and the national army for six months to allow for negotiations to take place.

Resolving the row over the genocide law is vital, he added, to get Dodik to recognize Inzko’s successor.

A European Commission spokesperson said: “The reconciliation process requires acknowledging what happened, honoring the victims and genuinely promoting reconciliation by confronting the roots of hatred that led to the genocide. Local ownership over the process is also key.”