War crimes evidence and social reconstruction explored at Elon Law forum

Three scholars whose current research explores the social significance of historical, visual, and scientific war crimes evidence spoke at Elon Law on January 18, exploring the Bosnian War and its aftermath in depth.

Historian David Crowe, documentarian Adnan Džumhur, and anthropologist Sarah Wagner spoke with Elon Law students, faculty, and members of the public at a special forum titled, “War Crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Their Aftermath: Exploring the Role of Historical, Visual, and Scientific Evidence in Trials before the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia and Its Impact on Social Reconstruction.”

Elon professor David Crowe.


Crowe is Professor of History at Elon University, Professor of Legal History at Elon University School of Law, and the author of Crimes of State, Past and Present: Government-Sponsored Atrocities and International Legal Responses (Routledge, 2010). He taught a winter-term course in January at Elon Law titled War Crimes, Genocide and Justice.

Through the Elon Law forum, Crowe surveyed the history of the Bosnian War and the proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), currently taking place in The Hague, Netherlands, which he observed extensively in recent months.

“The visual representation and documentary evidence at the trial is really quite astounding,” Crowe said. “There is no other trial like it in recent international criminal justice that I know of.”

Noting that more than $2 billion had been spent on the ICTY trials since the court’s inception in 1993, Crowe highlighted successes of the court in documenting and prosecuting war crimes, while raising questions about limited sentences applied to individuals found guilty and the relative comfort and lack of remorse exhibited by those accused of being most responsible for war crimes throughout the court proceedings.

Documentarian Adnan Džumhur


Adnan Džumhur, originally from Bosnia, teaches Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is currently completing a feature length documentary about the interplay between the factual and the imaginary in the context of Central and Eastern Europe’s recent past, including depictions of life under Communism and the war in the former Yugoslavia in literature and film.

At the Elon Law forum, Džumhur suggested that evidence of war crimes through photography and film had been essential in raising awareness about atrocities of the Bosnian War and in the prosecution of those crimes after the war, but said those same images had a “multiplicity of significance” over the last fifteen years on the communities that experienced the war.

“If you follow [Radovan Karadzic’s] trial right now [at the ICTY], you’ll note how much of his defense strategy is centered around the alleged media bias in favor of the Bosnians Muslims,” Džumhur said, detailing Karadzic’s accusations of staged massacres made for media consumption. “Basically he has refused all visual evidence that has been presented so far.”

Džumhur went on to suggest a connection between the defenses made by Karadzic and a noticeable degree of denial among Bosnian Serbs in the former Yugoslavia that war crimes ever took place.

UNCG anthropologist Sarah Wagner.


Sarah Wagner, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is the author of To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (University of California Press, 2008) and coauthor of Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Through the Elon Law forum, Wagner discussed the social impacts of large-scale efforts to identify those killed through war crimes during the Bosnian War using DNA evidence. She said that families and entire communities struggled to move forward when they lacked conclusive knowledge about the fate of those assumed to have been killed through war crimes, but also that the assumption that the recovery, identification, and burying of their family members bodies could help to achieve social repair was an assumption that needs to be problematized.

“Their struggle to imagine that person’s fate, their last moments of life and death, I should say that I saw that this absence of knowledge was paralyzing,” Wagner said.

Describing interactions of caseworkers with the International Commission on Missing Persons and family members of those lost through war crimes, Wagner said the knowledge they gained about their family members did not achieve the closure many hoped and expected it would.

“Sometimes we assume that knowledge sews things up … but if nothing else in watching these conversations unfold I’ve seen first-hand how often knowledge opens up new questions,” she said. “It brings with it the often incredibly disturbing details of the loved ones final moments of life, of his death, of the subsequent violation of his remains after death. Lest we think otherwise, knowledge does not necessarily bring a peace of mind. For many of the surviving relatives, this moment of identification involves a reawakening of recollections as if they were reliving this moment of final separation one last time.”

Eric Fink, Jennings Professor of Law and Emerging Scholar at Elon Law, moderated the forum, noting in his introduction that he taught refugees of the former Yugoslavia while teaching in Eastern Europe at the Anglo-American University in the Czech Republic, some of whom had families members who were currently combatants in the war.

The forum took place about one month following Elon Law’s announcement of its new Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic.