By Stephen Karganovic. • 02/09/2019
With attention riveted to imperialism’s threat to the freedom and sovereignty of Venezuela, some no less ominous threats to liberty closer to home are passing unnoticed. Several weeks ago, an obscure organization called “Institute for research of genocide – Canada” managed to gather sufficient signatures to put before the Canadian Parliament Petition 1837 which would drastically undermine Canadians’ freedom of expression. Petition 1837 makes spurious claims about what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 during the Bosnian civil war and urges the imposition of criminal penalties for “denying Srebrenica genocide”. Its sponsor is NDP MP Brian Masse (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Canadian lawmakers would be well advised not to get involved in this controversy and not to approve, at the behest of lobbying groups that they probably know little or nothing about, such a drastic infringement on the right of free expression in Canada. That right is guaranteed by Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a “fundamental freedom.” Can lawmakers be sure that they really want to interfere with it, and is it their job as representatives of the people of Canada to pass judgment and mete out punishment in controversies that do not affect Canada or their constituents? The only impact of approving Petition 1837 would be to curtail the freedom of expression of Canadian citizens and visitors to Canada who would venture to express a different opinion on the subject of Srebrenica.
There are several reasons why Parliament should reject Petition 1837. The first is that it is discriminatory toward the several hundred thousand Canadians of Serbian descent who will not change their views on Srebrenica just because such a law was passed. They came to Canada precisely because they were seeking to settle in a land where basic human freedoms were respected, including very importantly the freedom of expression. At election time, they may fully be expected to manifest their displeasure at such a denial of their right to speak out freely and openly in Canada.
Secondly, there is no similar law in Canada criminalizing denial of the Holocaust or the genocide of the Jewish people that was undoubtedly committed in Auschwitz. Is it not odd that it should be so? Do Canadian MPs really want to lend themselves to the minimization of the crimes committed against the Jewish people during World War II? Those crimes were widespread and systematic and by general consensus they do rise to the level of genocide. The Holocaust will be pointedly trivialized by singling out a highly politicized war crime during the recent conflict in the Balkans and making a plausible and legitimate opinion about it a criminal offence in Canada.
Last but not least, if Petition 1837 is enacted, what will be left of Canada’s reputation as a haven for those seeking freedom, of which freedom of expression is foremost? MPs would do well to ponder why in Canada the proponents of the view that Srebrenica was genocide seek to silence and punish those who disagree with them. Would not an open and respectful debate and review of the evidence be the better way to handle the issue and much more in the spirit of the principles upon which Canada was founded?
Of equal importance is the fact that among the experts there is no consensus on what happened in Srebrenica and that credible authorities hold divergent views on the subject.
Efraim 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, is among those who dispute Srebrenica's classification as a genocide. He says, "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, but it wasn't genocide." [See: Cnaan Liphshiz, "Mladic conviction rekindles Holocaust historians’ debate on definition of genocide," Jewish Telegraph Agency, November 23, 2017]
Prestigious academic journals, like the Fordham International Law Journal and the Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, have published papers written by legal scholars who dispute Srebrenica's legal classification as genocide. [See: William A. Schabas, "Was Genocide Committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina? First Judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia", 25 Fordham International Law Journal, 23 (2001); See also: Katherine G. Southwick, "Srebrenica as Genocide? The Krstic Decision and the Language of the Unspeakable," Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal: Vol. 8: Iss. 1, Article 5 (2005)]
In addition to criminalizing legitimate academic scholarship, the petition would criminalize views that have been expressed in the Canadian press by Canadian UN officers and diplomats who served in the Balkans during the 1990s.
Lewis MacKenzie, the Canadian general who served as the first commander of UN Peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo, wrote an op-ed for the Globe and Mail questioning the scale of the Srebrenica massacre and expressing doubts about its classification as a genocide. [See: Lewis MacKenzie, "The Real Story Behind Srebrenica," The Globe and Mail, July 14, 2005]
Canada's former Ambassador to Yugoslavia, James Bissett, has raised similar doubts about the scale of the massacre and he disputes its classification as genocide. According to a letter he wrote to the Ottawa Citizen, the Srebrenica massacre was "a serious war crime but it is not genocide". [See: James Bissett, "Don't Forget All the Victims of Srebrenica," The Ottawa Citizen, June 27, 2008]
The petition that could be voted into law in Canada claims that "more than 8,372 Bosniaks in Srebrenica, mainly men and boys, were murdered in cold blood by the Army and Police Forces of Republika Srpska". No source is given for this claim. This figure is significantly higher than was found to be the case by judges at International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague and by other international officials.
The war crimes judgment against former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic determined that “at least 5,115 men were killed by members of the Bosnian Serb Forces in July 1995 in Srebrenica” and the judgment in the Tolimir trial found that “Bosnian Serb Forces killed at least 4,970 Bosnian Muslims” at Srebrenica. [See: Karadzic Judgment, ICTY, 24 March 2016, Para 5519 and Tolimir Judgment, ICTY, 12 December 2012, Para 570]
Carl Bildt, who served as the European Union Co-Chairman of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, Prime Minister of Sweden 1991-1994, Co-Chairman of the Dayton Peace Conference and subsequently the first High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, put the toll of the massacre closer to 3,000 in his book “Peace Journey”. He wrote that “when we eventually, in early August, began to understand what had really happened the picture became even more gruesome. In five days of massacres, Mladic had arranged for the methodical execution of more than three thousand men who had stayed behind and become prisoners of war. And probably more than four thousand people had lost their lives in a week of brutal ambushes and fighting in the forests, by the roadside and in the valleys between Srebrenica and the Tuzla district, as the column was trying to reach safety.” [See: Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The struggle for peace in Bosnia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998, p. 66]
The evidence on Srebrenica is far from settled. Judges at the ICTY have not been unanimous in their findings related to Srebrenica. Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe strongly dissented from her colleagues in the Zdravko Tolimir trial. She said the trial had been unfair and that much of the evidence relied upon by her colleges was either biased or unreliable. [See: Dissenting Opinion of Prisca Matimba Nyambe, Tolimir Trial Judgment (Sec. XIII), ICTY, 12 December 2012]
The scale of the Srebrenica massacre, its classification as genocide, and other findings made by the ICTY are hotly disputed and Dutch based NGO Srebrenica Historical Project maintains a research website with extensive information on the subject. The Government and Parliament of Canada should not attempt to settle this matter by criminalizing speech and imposing legal restrictions on the opinions that people are allowed to express about this contentious issue. Truth and justice will best be served by allowing a free and open debate to play out and letting the evidence take us wherever it leads. For these reasons, Petition 1837 should be withdrawn from parliamentary consideration.
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