„Denying is becoming Part of a Folklore“ – Interview with Srebrenica-Survivor and author Nedžad Avdić

Emma Neuber, Estella Müller & Miriam Schirmer

Doku im rbb: Krieg vor Gericht © Bild: rbb/LOOKSfilm (S2+), honorarfrei, Verwendung in engem redaktionellem Zusammenhang mit der Sendung

Dieses englischsprachige Interview ist Teil einer Interviewreihe und Filmbesprechung von Genocide Alert e.V. zur zweiteiligen Dokumentarreihe „Krieg vor Gericht“, die im Sommer 2021 in der ARD ausgestrahlt wurde. Die Dokumentation gibt detaillierten Einblick in die juristische Aufarbeitung der während der Jugoslawienkriege von 1991 bis 2001 verübten Massenverbrechen. Dabei werden einerseits historische Ereignisse rund um das Jugoslawientribunal detailgenau rekonstruiert. Andererseits geben Berichte von Zeitzeug:innen einen persönlichen Einblick in die geschehenen Massenverbrechen und den Strafprozess. Im nachfolgenden Interview schildert der Überlebende des Völkermordes in Srebrenica Nedžad Avdić was ihn antreibt und wie er auf die bisherige Aufarbeitung der damaligen Massenverbrechen blickt.

„Denying is becoming Part of a Folklore“ – Interview with Srebrenica-Survivor and author Nedžad Avdić

Nedžad Avdić was born in 1978 in a village near Srebrenica into a family of Bosniaks. When he was only 17 years old, he and his male relatives were taken to a killing field during the genocide in Srebrenica. Nedžad was shot three times by Serb soldiers. However, with the help of another survivor he managed to escape and survived the genocide. When the ICTY was established in 1993 he decided to testify as a witness in two cases. Today, Nedžad lives in Potočari, six kilometres away from Srebenica, as one of the few survivors who returned to Srebrenica. Recently, Nedžad not only participated in the documentary series “Krieg vor Gericht – Die Jugoslawien-Prozesse”, but also published the book “The Hague Witness”, in which he tells his story.

Genocide Alert: You do a lot of interviews and talk about your personal experiences publicly, for example in the documentary series on the ICTY. What is your motivation for that? What drives you?

Nedžad Avdić: First of all, the most important motive is the truth. However, to fully understand this, you need to understand the circumstances in Bosnia and the region and know some crucial facts. I never really escaped from the hell of Srebrenica, I did not come from hell to some kind of paradise somewhere in Bosnia where I could keep living peacefully. First, I fought for my life, then I fought for justice as a witness at the ICTY and the Bosnian court as well. And today I fight against those who deny the truth and the international judgements, and all the judgements related to the genocide and the war crimes here in Bosnia.

All this time, since July 1995, what was committed in Srebrenica has been brutally denied. Even some foreign media immediately after the war went with sarcastic headlines, such as “Genocide without corpses?”, alluding to the non-existence of mass graves.

Today, 26 years later, despite very precise evidence and despite numerous verdicts, the denial continues even more aggressively. We are dealing with denial, revisionism, reduction and minimization of crimes, justification of crimes, and glorification of crimes and war criminals. In fact, we have a development of a culture of denial. And denying is becoming part of a folklore here in Bosnia, it is a trend.

All these things drive me. So, do we need a stronger motivation than this? Can we allow lies, mythomania, and propaganda to prevail over the truth? That is my answer to that question.

Genocide Alert: From August 2021 on, the denial of the genocide in Bosnia is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. What do you think about this legislation, especially as you told us that denial is a trend in Bosnia right now?

NA: Much time ago, we needed that. Maybe now it is too late, but from my point of view it is better now than never. But some things cannot be solved by law. The main problem, in my opinion, lies in the Serbian population and also here in Bosnia, especially with the people who deny the genocide and the international judgments. They have a lot of support in Serbia and that is the main problem, because many war criminals – during the war, after the war, and today – find shelter and protection in Serbia or in Serbian entities[1] here in Bosnia. They are protected by official Serbian politics, by Serbian media and institutions. And that is the problem because Serb politicians were never confronted with the bloody past. And that law can maybe help, but they have to be confronted in their society. I hope that catharsis will come one day but for now, nothing happened.

Genocide Alert: How do you perceive the situation in the country today? To what extent do you still feel the effects of the war and the genocide in the society today?

Nedžad Avdić: I returned to Srebrenica around 15 years ago, in 2007. I feel the consequences of the war everywhere, not only physically but in every sense. In fact, the genocide has never stopped. A small community of returnees still struggles against elimination from all segments of life. Of course, the situation is incomparably better than 20 years ago, but we have a frozen conflict. And the denial of the genocide and the missing confrontation cause problems in everyday life, specifically here in Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia where I live now. We have problems, like the denial of verdicts, the complete deprivation of the right to learn the Bosnian language in schools for our children, in fact the denial of our identity, the dehumanization of Bosniaks in public speech, on a daily basis in the media. For example, very rarely the term “Bosniaks” is being used. The terms “Muslims”, “Muslim soldiers”, “Muslim children”, etc. are preferred instead – but that is not fair and not correct. In that way they want to humiliate us and show us as dirty Muslims. And in fact, such vocabulary was used during the war and such vocabulary brought us the genocide and prepared the Serb population for the extermination of their neighbours.

Genocide Alert: Perpetrator voices are featured next to those of survivors in the documentary you took part in. How important do you think is it to include both perspectives in processes of dealing with the genocide?

Nedžad Avdić: The perpetrator who is featured in the documentary was on the Bosnian side and seemingly he talks about it openly.

In my experience, most of the Serb perpetrators just deny everything that they’ve committed. They do not regret what they did and they do not talk about it except when they deny it. The reason for that is that they find refuge and protection in Serbia and the Republika Srpska. They are protected by Serbian official policy, by Serbian media and institutions etc.

But I have to be honest: I do not like to be together with the perpetrators, the deniers, even in the film. But if someone wants to bring both perspectives together and thinks it is a good idea to have perpetrators and survivors in a documentary, I am happy to take part. But, I will always say that the perpetrators showed what they were able to show when they were committing crimes, and I do not see what they could offer more. We are talking about thousands of destroyed human lives and destinies, and we cannot put perpetrators and survivors on the same level. We did not fight gun to gun, people who were killed with me, were unarmed, defenceless and innocent civilians. Because of that, I do not like to be represented on the same level.

Genocide Alert: Do you feel that in Bosnia today adequate space is given to voices of survivors and the families of victims?

Nedžad Avdić: Definitely not enough space is given to the victims. We were not given any space voluntarily, because someone thought we should be given a platform to talk about our suffering. We had to fight for that space ourselves. We fought for everything, and we still fight.

As for the perpetrators of crimes, in Bosnia, or more specifically in Srebrenica, no space exists in which war criminals were ever given the chance to express any remorse. Also, since Serb officials deny the genocide, they have never actively claimed any such space to confront and process the past.

Genocide Alert: To what extent was the ICTY able to contribute to the reappraisal of the genocide and mass atrocities committed and the reconciliation process in general? In your opinion, what were the most significant outcomes and most important shortcomings of the ICTY?

Nedžad Avdić: In fact, we can ask ourselves the question: What would the situation in Bosnia be like today if we did not have the ICTY? We can only guess. I believe it would be incomparably worse, that’s for sure. Imagine having all those major criminals at large today? I can’t imagine that and I don’t want to imagine that. We, the rare witnesses, I don’t know if we would be alive in such circumstances. If we didn’t have the ICTY, today the war criminals would probably walk around as respectable citizens. That’s the good side of the tribunal.

Of course, the ICTY has many shortcomings: The first is that justice came too late, and many victims and survivors did not receive it. If we had had one quick trial, like in Nuremberg, today the situation in the country would be completely different. I must admit that my expectations were much greater. But as I said, many war criminals were sent to the ICTY very late. Why did that happen? It happened because they found shelter in Serbia. And Serbia waited until the last moment to send them to the ICTY. And that is a huge problem because the international community didn’t put huge pressure on Serbia to send them to the ICTY immediately after the war.

Genocide Alert: You also decided to engage personally in the work of the ICTY by testifying before court. Why did you decide to testify before the court? How was this experience for you?

Nedžad Avdić: First of all, after such a tragedy, the ICTY was the only hope at the time and the only light for us survivors. What I could do, as a survivor, was to testify how such a crime could be represented to the tribunal and later to a broader public.

In the end, it was my moral obligation and the only thing I could do for my killed father, my killed uncles, for my schoolmates, for my friends, for my relatives and neighbours.

My testimonies were difficult, very painful and exhausting because I had to go through the horror again.

For the first time I was faced with so many people who were listening about the horror in details from the first hand. It was pretty stressful for me when I found myself there in the courtroom in the first case for Srebrenica. It was the case against General Radislav Krstić who was convicted for genocide and sentenced to 35 years imprisonment. It was very stressful for me to be in the courtroom because it was the first time for me to talk about what had happened. And so many prosecutors, so many personnel, and the jury, and the lawyers who defended the war criminal were there. It was very difficult for me to talk about that, I was experiencing real horror again. And I remember that I was testifying there, crying all the time. And when they asked me after the trial to come again in the next case, I said: “It is my first and my last case to come to the tribunal.” But later when they called me again I accepted again because, as I said, it was my obligation and the only thing I could do.

Genocide Alert: Some believe that the ICTY has led to justice. In your personal opinion, did it do so?

Nedžad Avdić (Photy by Nedžad Avdić)
Nedžad Avdić (Photy by Nedžad Avdić)

Nedžad Avdić: The ICTY has done part of the job. We have to say that the court was quite objective and did not take sides, but as a survivor I can tell you that justice was at best partially served. Individuals from the top were convicted, but the regime that was established on those crimes still exists, devastation and ethnic cleansing remained, results of the war are still visible everywhere. Srebrenica today is in the hands of those who deny genocide and glorify war criminals. For example, our local mayor denies the genocide. It is important to ask ourselves if such people could have come to power if they had not committed the genocide. The mayor of Srebrenica is a perfect example: after the genocide, probably because of the genocide, he had much more possibilities to take power. Is that justice?

But, I want to express one thing: So, even though great injustice was inflicted, genocide was committed, we as an ethnic group were completely expelled, when all that is taken into account, I can say that the judgments are important in the end, because they bring us the closest to the truth. And just because of that I can say that I feel a certain relief, a certain amount of satisfaction. Because in that way, the ICTY discovered the truth and presented it to public – that is important for me. For me, it doesn’t mean much that some war criminals are in prison, because their imprisonment cannot return my father, my uncles, my relatives. For me the truth is more important than anything else.

Genocide Alert: From the perspective of a survivor: What are the most important learnings for future genocide tribunals? Are there any?

Nedžad Avdić: In Srebrenica and after that when I was loaded on a truck I could only see brutality and bestiality. But following the work of the court, I could see a lot of evidence, a lot of documents, a criminal structure, joint criminal ventures, strategical goals which actually were genocidal intentions. I couldn’t know such things here in Srebrenica, as seventeen-year-old boys we were in total isolation. I found out much about the war, destruction and the enormous scale of the crime from the trials. And maybe the most important thing that I learned from the ICTY and all that, but from the terrain as well: I realized that all conventions were just plain definitions on paper. In reality, they meant nothing. Each one of them was violated. I realized in practice, on the terrain and during the many trials, that we had and have many conventions, but they are not respected at all.

We, as human beings, especially the politicians, should react much faster and much earlier. Before the possibility of a genocide arises. Judgements and tribunals are only reactions that are always too late. If we had stopped the war and saved only one live, it would have been much better than any tribunal later established.

[1] Republika Srpska

GA Interviewreihe „Krieg vor Gericht“

Anlässlich der Veröffentlichung der Dokumentarreihe hat Genocide Alert e.V. zwei Interviews mit Projektbeteiligten geführt: Im ersten Interview mit Genocide Alert gibt Lucio Mollica, der der Regisseur von „Krieg vor Gericht“, einen Einblick in die Entstehung und Hintergründe der Dokumentarreihe.


Krieg vor Gericht – Die Jugoslawien-Prozesse
Das Grauen des Balkankrieges: belagerte Städte, vertriebene Familien, über 130.000 Tote. Der Internationalen Strafgerichtshof für das ehemalige Jugoslawien sollte die Kriegsverbrechen ahnden. Nie zuvor hat ein internationales Gericht Kriegsverbrecher aller Seiten verfolgt – darunter Mladić, Karadžić und Milošević. Der Film erzählt von Opfern, Tätern und Anklägern. – Der ehemalige bosnisch-serbische Politiker Radovan Karadžić vor Gericht am 24. März 2016 in Den Haag.

Titelbild: © Nedžad Avdić

Beitragsbild: © rbb/LOOKSfilm, honorarfrei – Verwendung gemäß der AGB im engen inhaltlichen, redaktionellen Zusammenhang mit genannter rbb-Sendung bei Nennung „Bild: rbb/LOOKSfilm“ (S2+). rbb Presse & Information, Masurenallee 8-14, 14057 Berlin, Tel: 030/97 99 3-12118,

Beitragsbild: © Nedžad Avdić

Interview mit Lucio Mollica, Regisseur von „Krieg vor Gericht“

Emma Neuber, Estella Müller & Miriam Schirmer

In der zweiteiligen Dokumentarfilmreihe „Krieg vor Gericht“ gibt Regisseur Lucio Mollica einen detaillierten Einblick in die juristische Aufarbeitung der während der Jugoslawienkriege von 1991 bis 2001 verübten Massenverbrechen. Dabei werden einerseits historische Ereignisse rund um das Jugoslawientribunal detailgenau rekonstruiert. Andererseits geben Berichte von Zeitzeug:innen einen persönlichen Einblick in die geschehenen Massenverbrechen und den Strafprozess.

Dieses englischsprachige Interview ist Teil einer Interviewreihe und Filmbesprechung von Genocide Alert e.V. anlässlich der Veröffentlichung. Die zweiteilige Dokumentarreihe „Krieg vor Gericht“ ist noch bis zum 08.08.2021 in der ARD-Mediathek online zu sehen.

The Interview

This interview with the Italian director Lucio Mollica was conducted in connection with the documentary series “Krieg vor Gericht – Die Jugoslawien-Prozesse“.

GA: The first question is a rather personal one: We are interested in your motivation to produce this movie – why did you decide to engage yourself with the topic of the ICTY?

LM: It’s a long story. Part of it is because of the first film I made. Just after school, I went with a group of friends to Bosnia to make a film ten years after the end of the war, and we remained so attached to this country. We were supposed to stay there only a few weeks, but we ended up staying longer and we were really heartbroken when we finally left. Somehow, I remained connected to this country, to its people and I continued following essentially what the ICTY was doing as a matter of personal interest. The last film I did was a series about Afghanistan and its history of the past 40 years. And one of the things I found most striking about the history of Afghanistan – and probably one of the causes of this never-ending cycle of violence in that country – is the absolute lack of justice and of truth at the same time, of a recognized truth and a feeling of those guilty having been somehow put on trial and sentenced. And that’s why it was important to look at the spirits of the ICTY, which is now somehow a bit distant from us.

GA: You said that you already shot a movie on the Bosnian War and the former Yugoslavia and that you stayed connected somehow. What made you stay connected specifically?

LM: I think first of all because of the people that I’ve met and the stories they shared with us. They were so shocking and at the same time so true, so strong. And you know, I’m an Italian; Italy is a border nation of the former Yugoslavia. When I grew up as a kid, the war was taking place, so it was very close to us. We used to go there and they also travelled to Italy, there were many similarities in a number of regards. I think the experience of how quickly a nation can descend into war, into violence, is something I did not forget and that’s one of the aspects of this film. I didn’t want to focus too much on the particularities on how the situation in Yugoslavia evolved. Instead, I almost wanted to work by subtraction and see how in the end the pattern could happen and how it could start tomorrow in any other country.  History repeats itself and we learn so little from it, so a documentary may help sometimes.

GA: Of course, you already knew a little bit about the background and the history, but how was research conducted in general for the film?

LM: We had a good team, that was the most important aspect. We had journalists who were familiar with the region or were from the region. Additionally, historians and a lot of other people with different expertise advised us on different levels. The most extensive research we did was the research in the tribunal’s archive and in the archive of the war. Especially the research on the tribunal was very extensive because we were dealing with thousands, maybe millions of hours of material. It took us at least a month to decide how we were starting, how we were looking at it. I think that was the most challenging part in this film or one of the challenges.

GA: You said that the research was the most challenging part. Was it also challenging to find protagonists and survivors, or the other participants in the tribunal?

LM: No, I would say that was quite straightforward. It was challenging to decide who was going to make it into the film. In twenty years of history and trial of the tribunal, there was no shortage of judges, prosecutors, survivors, and witnesses. It was a bit more difficult with perpetrators, that was definitively the most challenging operation for us in terms of who to feature in the documentary. But in general, also thanks to the historians we worked with and who in their previous work had been in contact with some of the protagonists, it was relatively easy to get in touch with people. If you come back to them humanely, there is a good chance that the interview is going to be good as well.

GA: You already mentioned that it was important for you to have different perspectives. Also, were there aspects of the film where it was more important for you to include different perspectives?

LM: One of the most interesting books I’ve read on the subject a long time ago was the book of Slavenka Drakulić, a Croation writer and one of the characters in the film. She wrote a book about some perpetrators in the tribunal, which is named “They Would Never Hurt a Fly“. I would have made a film just on that for how interesting it is to understand how perfectly ordinary people in the wrong circumstances became capable of atrocities and mass murders. Again, assuming that this could happen elsewhere, I think it is important to understand this. So that we don’t say, it’s them, it’s these bad people, it’s this culture, this country that produced these atrocities. But it’s  normal people, who in other circumstances could have been artists, gardeners, or doctors. In the end, for me, it was important to give a testimony. Of course, it implies questions, because I’m sure not everybody is happy when you give a stage to somebody with that kind of background. But I think it’s worth doing. The choice of the perpetrators that we had was more interesting, because it required some sensibility. We didn’t want to have any perpetrators.  We were quite sure in particular that we didn’t want to offer anybody a platform just to rerun the trial. We were interested in the human journey inside the institution of the ICTY. And so, we chose two people who were very different. One was Serb, one was Bosnian. One was a big political actor, the other one was an ordinary foot soldier.[1] But both of them expressed their culpability, each in a different way. And it was interesting for us to see how different reasons brought on the admission of guilt.

GA: Did you, when you shot the movie and when you interviewed the different people, have them on set simultaneously? Were there any tensions?

LM: No, never. Everyone was filmed separately because we like to give people our undivided attention in the time they spend with us. We interviewed them for a day, sometimes more than one day. The time we spent together served to create trust and intimacy; everybody needed to feel unique in that moment. They are recounting their own individual personal stories and that can be very traumatic, sometimes very difficult, so we didn’t want to mix those emotional processes with something else.

GA: Did you tell the survivors in advance that you were also conducting interviews with perpetrators? And what did they say about that?

LM: I remember with one of them there was a conversation about how it’s not important if you feature the survivors, the perpetrators, but how much space you give them. Because there is a fair amount of denialism, for instance, regarding Srebrenica. And I made it very clear that that’s not what we were interested to have in the film. We didn’t want a debate on whether Srebrenica happened or not, or who was right and who was wrong in the war. It was a film about justice. And in justice, the defendants – including the guilty ones – have the right to speak. This is why I think it was right to include their perspectives as well.

GA: And how was it for you personally to work with or interview the survivors? Did you have any psychologists on set as well?

LM: No, we didn’t have a psychologist on set. It’s not like a medical first aid kit. Because often, the psychological impact such an interview can have is a process. And this process takes time. The characters that opened up to me were fine on set, but I’m sure that reliving the story is painful and opens some wounds every single time. So probably after the interview, I can imagine for some of them, they didn’t feel great.

GA: I think that’s a very interesting point that you mentioned. Of course, you can break open existing wounds and you always have a risk of re-traumatization, but on the other hand, you’re curious; you want to tell the public more about the fate of the individuals. How do you manage this tension between the risk of re-traumatization on the one hand and the public interest on the other hand?

LM: I think it’s a bit arrogant from my perspective as a filmmaker to judge. I think it’s very much in the responsibility of my interview partner. I like to do some preparatory work with them to explore the different aspects of the interview and the process. I want to give them the possibility to think about it in the cold light of the day and to be prepared for it. In most cases, they know exactly what they are going to face. Mostly, they have done interviews before, so they have been there already. Every time it’s painful and difficult, but they know it. I think it would be difficult if we were dealing with other characters, with children, with people who are less informed about how the media and this process works. But in this case, I think they were in the position to make their own choices. Of course, you try to go step by step with them, not to force them and to leave them space, in which they feel free to stop when they want to stop or to interrupt. But every time it’s a learning experience for me as well.

GA: What was the most memorable moment talking to survivors for you personally?

LM: There were many. I remember, for instance, Esad Landžo [one of the convicted perpetrators interviewed in the series], when he was watching the images of the trial that he probably hadn’t watched since the trial. It was a very intense moment. Or when we walked with Nedžad Avdić [survivor of the massacre of Srebrenica interviewed in the series] in the woods of Srebrenica where he had lost his father and started his journey. And he had also never come back before. It really does something you. But my interest was also in the staff of the tribunal. For instance, Jean-René Ruez, the policeman. In his office he has all the documents he collected for those years, lots of memorabilia, notes. It makes you feel how strong of an impact the tribunal left but also how passionate people can really move mountains. In the end, if it wasn’t for individuals who took their job very seriously, the ICTY could have never happened the way it did. I am talking about Ruez as an example, but it’s true for a number of people who worked for the ICTY on different levels. In highly unlikely circumstances they accomplished something that was unexpected. This shows that people can make a difference and that was a big lesson of the documentary.

Das Ermittlerteam des ICTY bei Ausgrabungen vor Ort (Copyright siehe unten).
Bild: Das Ermittlerteam des ICTY bei Ausgrabungen vor Ort (Copyright siehe unten).

GA: You mentioned earlier that it’s a documentary series about justice: How do you think your series can help foster the discussion about justice after mass atrocities or after genocide in the future?

LM: It’s simple: Documentaries can start a discussion simply by being watched and commented. Online there are a lot of comments and discussions about the film and people of different, sometimes opposing ideas debate over it. Maybe the people watching develop some thoughts or discover something they didn’t know. It’s easy to dismiss or to forget what this trial has been about. So just to keep that memory alive was important to us. And then, trying to learn something from it, would be the second step.

GA: Just for you personally, as a conclusion, what’s the most important aspect for you about the film? Or what is closest to your heart about this movie?

LM: Again, we come back to the beginning: Such atrocities can happen again, and they can happen elsewhere. The second part is that we need some kind of justice, because it’s going to happen again. The lack of justice actually perpetrates the risk of escalating violence. We need to find a way as a civilization to deal with these crimes in a just manner. It’s not just about punishing the guilty, but it’s about bringing justice. No matter the criticism that was put against the ICTY – which I’m not going to challenge – every one of these 161 people indicted in the tribunal had the possibility to defend themselves, to call witnesses, to have a lawyer, sometimes a team of lawyers, to challenge every single piece of evidence or every single witness of the prosecution. Some were acquitted. I think this might not be received well by all sides, but I think in the long run it pays off.

[1] The convicted perpetrators interviewed in the documentary were Esad Landžo, the Bosnian foot soldier mentioned, and Biljana Plavšić, former president of the Republic of Srbska.


Privataufnahme, bereitgestellt durch Lucio Mollica.

Krieg vor Gericht – Die Jugoslawien-Prozesse
Das Grauen des Balkankrieges: belagerte Städte, vertriebene Familien, über 130.000 Tote. Der Internationalen Strafgerichtshof für das ehemalige Jugoslawien sollte die Kriegsverbrechen ahnden. Nie zuvor hat ein internationales Gericht Kriegsverbrecher aller Seiten verfolgt – darunter Mladić, Karadžić und Milošević. Der Film erzählt von Opfern, Tätern und Anklägern. – Der französische Ermittler Jean-René Ruez entdeckte mit seinem Team die Massengräber, in denen fast 8.000 muslimische Männer aus Srebrenica verscharrt wurden.

© rbb/Jean-René Ruez, honorarfrei – Verwendung gemäß der AGB im engen inhaltlichen, redaktionellen Zusammenhang mit genannter rbb-Sendung bei Nennung „Bild: rbb/Jean-René Ruez“ (S2+). rbb Presse & Information, Masurenallee 8-14, 14057 Berlin, Tel: 030/97 99 3-12118,

Simon Adams, Executive Director des Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York

Interview mit Simon Adams: „mass atrocities are a developmental catastrophe“

Simon Adams, Executive Director des Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York

Simon Adams, Executive Director des Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York

Simon Adams ist the Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect in New York. He has worked extensively with civil society organizations around the world. He has published several books on international conflict and is a reknown expert on issues of mass atrocity prevention and international justice. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect is working for the promotion of universal acceptance and effective operational implementation of the norm of the „Responsibility to Protect“ populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. It engages in advocacy around specific crises, conducts research designed to further understanding of R2P, recommends strategies to help states build capacity, and works closely with NGOs, governments and international and regional institutions to operationalize the Responsibility to Protect. The Centre is funded by different governments, donations and individuals.

Genocide Alert has asked Simon Adams about his thoughts and recommendations on the nexus of conflict prevention, development cooperation and atrocity prevention.

Is there a difference betweenconventionaldevelopment cooperation and structural mass atrocity prevention? If there is a difference, what is it? 

Simon Adams: There is obviously an overlap but I think what is distinct is where you apply a mass atrocity prevention lens to particular forms of development cooperation. Not to be too reductive, but is digging a well just an issue of providing clean drinking water in keeping with a particular SDG? What if the well is in a village where people are divided on the basis of rival communal identities and access to water is a source of conflict? What risks are therefore associated with digging the well? Could it actually end up exacerbating tensions or reinforcing discriminatory structures? Or could a well be provided in a way that actually helps bring the community closer together and helps overcome some past sources of conflict? I actually experienced this exact situation in East Timor in 2002 but it is illustrative of a bigger issue about how we understand that development cooperation does not take place in a political, historical and social void. Context is crucial.  

In Germany, the concept of mass atrocity prevention lies in the hands of the Foreign Office foremostly. Would it make sense to include mass atrocity prevention as an explicit goal of development cooperation? 

Simon Adams: Yes. Absolutely. We know, for example, that mass atrocities are a developmental catastrophe. The war in Syria has wiped out 35 years of developmental gains in health and welfare. The genocide in Rwanda caused a 60% reduction in the economy in one year. The civil war in Syria has kept an entire generation of kids out of school and will have a drastic impact on their ability to meet SDG goals. Mass atrocity prevention should definitely be an explicit goal of development cooperation. It’s not just a matter of avoiding risks, but of consciously understanding how development can help undermine the underlying sources of identity-based conflict.  

In its guidelines on crises prevention, the German Government declared that the prevention of genocide and other grave human rights violations belongs to the German reason of state. These guidelines explicitely are of cross-ministerial nature. What can a cross-ministerial coopearation in mass atrocity prevention look like in Germany or other states 

Simon Adams: I think Denmark has made some progress in this area and some other states too. Cross-ministerial cooperation is essential. For example, I’m sure Germany’s ministries of justice, foreign affairs and development are all concerned about the situation with the Rohingya in Myanmar. It would be a disaster if future development cooperation in Rakhine State profited the people who carried out the genocide and whom the ministries of justice and foreign affairs probably think should be sanctioned or taken to the ICC.  

Do you know of any concrete cases where development cooperation might have hightened the risk of mass atrocities, for example by increasing tensions between different groups? 

Simon Adams: See my example re: East Timor above. Also, Rwanda was a major recipient of aid prior to the genocide. No one really questioned the fact that the regime openly discriminated against Tutsi. The government was also seen as a reliable and reasonably non-corrupt partner. Many western governments liked doing development work in Rwanda. And then of course 1994 happened. I think there are numerous other examples where governments who are recipients of aid divert that aid to benefit particular communities to the detriment of others.  

Do you know of any concrete cases where it is plausible to assume that development cooperation prevented onsets of mass atrocities? 

Simon Adams: Too many too list. Look at any country with identity-based divisions and with a history of violent conflict. I think development assistance has been crucial in many of these countries and not just those that have formally transitioned from active armed conflict to peace.  

What role can civil-society actors play in coordinating development cooperation and prevention of mass atrocities? 

Simon Adams: They are often not just the eyes and ears on the ground, but the mouth that can speak up about the specific ways in which particular forms of development cooperation could make a situation worse, or could radically improve it. 


The interview was conducted by Paul Stewens

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