Dangerous lies that spread from Auschwitz to Srebrenica

The words "I was wrong" rarely appear under journalists' bylines. But in the Observer this week, John Simpson, the veteran BBC correspondent, acknowledged that he had been mistaken about a libel trial arising from the Bosnian war.

The 20th anniversary of the most destructive conflict in postwar Europe fell this month. In a country the size of Scotland, almost 100,000 Bosnians were killed and two million were displaced. Because all sides suffered, observers argued that culpability was shared and that its cause was a resurgence of ancient ethnic hatreds among Serbs, Croats and Muslims. That was a fateful misreading. The war was a preventable humanitarian catastrophe that was compounded by the stance of Western governments.

Responsibility lay overwhelmingly with the Bosnian Serbs. Their leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, sought to carve out an ethnically pure territory in a deranged, racist scheme for a "Greater Serbia". Their target was the legitimate government of a multi-ethnic state. Their Svengali was a thuggish bureaucrat and ballot-rigger, Slobodan Milosevic.

The crimes of which Karadzic and Mladic now stand accused at The Hague are a catalogue of barbarism: mass murder, ethnic expulsion and rape. These include the siege of Sarajevo, which killed more than 10,000, and the genocide of 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica.

They were accused of fabricating the evidence

None of this ought to have surprised Western policymakers, who maintained an arms embargo that froze in place the military superiority of Serb forces. Some brave journalists had uncovered appalling depredations early in the conflict. The Guardian's Ed Vulliamy and ITN 's Penny Marshall and Ian Williams exposed inhuman conditions at the Serb-run concentration camp at Trnopolje in northern Bosnia. For their pains, they were accused of fabricating their evidence.

Hence the libel trial, at the High Court in 2000. ITN successfully sued LM, a small magazine. A roster of media figures came to LM's aid, claiming a threat to free speech. Simpson was one. But in a review this week of Vulliamy's fine new book, The War is Dead: Long Live the War, he wrote: "Vulliamy's account of what happened in the camp is completely unanswerable."

You can say that again. Yet while LM went out of business under the costs of its calumnious lies, several of its staff have since attained media prominence. Mick Hume, its editor, was for some years a Times columnist.

During the war, prominent Jews did their best to urge a change in Western policy. In a speech at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Elie Wiesel turned to President Clinton and implored him to protect Bosnian civilians. After the revelation of the Serb camps, three American Jewish groups lobbied for "every necessary step, including the use of force" to stop the atrocities. It was not their fault that their words went unheeded.

Jews have a particular interest in helping to ensure that the human costs of what followed are accurately recounted. The facts of the genocidal assault on Bosnia's Muslims are so horrific that a cottage industry of denial has since grown up. You will find websites claiming that the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre has been exaggerated, and that those who died were killed in combat. This material is not just the equivalent of Holocaust denial, but the same fraudulent argument. It should be recognised and named for what it is: genocide denial

Vulliamy cites two far-left polemicists; Edward Herman and David Peterson. Their contemptible volume, The Politics of Genocide, claims that Western media swallow a propaganda line about Srebrenica and Rwanda. It has a foreword by Noam Chomsky and an endorsement by John Pilger.

Such arguments have an echo on the nativist Right, including some who insinuate themselves as friends of Israel. The Jerusalem Post published a piece in February by one Srdja Trifkovic claiming that US recognition of Kosovo was an advance for jihadism. It did not mention that Trifkovic has described Srebrenica as "a myth based on a lie", the number of whose victims "remain[s] unknown and misrepresented".

To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens: it's impossible to eat enough in order to vomit enough on reading such material. The Muslim populations of Bosnia and Kosovo bear as much relation to al-Qaeda as the Archbishop of Canterbury does to the snake-handling sects of Appalachia. Milosevic's victims should be remembered. The truth about their fate should be defended.

Oliver Kamm is a leader writer for The Times

Last updated: 12:54pm, June 7 2012