Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at IIT
Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall 1995
Igor Primoratz, Hebrew University, Jerusalem
By now, the basic facts about Serbia's war on its western neighbors are well known-especially, the war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide. What is much less known outside the Balkans is that Serbian intellectuals, and academics in particular, have played a major role in all that.
The latest dispensation of the Greater Serbian ideology, the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (1986), had a crucial role in converting Slobodan Milosevic, originally a Communist apparatchik, to the nationalist cause. Countless Serbian academics (and intellectuals generally) have articulated and promoted the ideology of a greater and ethnically pure Serbia, to be set up in a part of the world extremely mixed ethnically.
They have incited to racism, war, "ethnic cleansing", and genocide at home, and engaged in propaganda abroad. Prominent academics have held high political office in the Belgrade government. Almost all the important opposition parties-none of which opposes the Greater Serbian project, but only some of the details of its realization-are led by well-known academics.
Silence that Condones
To be sure, there are many others who have taken no active part in all that. But they-meaning almost all the remaining Serbian academics-have also failed to oppose the war and the crimes in any way, or even to dissociate themselves from them.
Given the nature of Serbia's war on its western neighbors and the character and dimensions of the crimes it has committed and is still committing daily, I think every citizen of Serbia has a moral duty to oppose what is being done in his or her name, or at least to dissociate himself or herself from it. This can be said with particular force of academics. For they deal in words, representations, and ideas, and are particularly well placed to take a public stand and make their views, values, and principles known to their compatriots.
It might be argued that nothing they might have said, written, or done, would have prevented the war, or affected its course in any palpable way. Their protests could only expose them to unpleasant consequences, to no good purpose. But this argument assumes that dissociation and protest have a point and can be a duty only when there is a good chance of affecting things for the better. However, sometimes symbolic protest and dissociation may be appropriate and even morally required.
When serious evil or injustice is committed by someone associated with me in a significant way, and in particular when it is committed in the name of the group to which I too belong, I may protest the evil or injustice, dissociating myself from it and from those perpetrating it, in order to show that it is not perpetrated in my name too.
I thereby say something of critical importance about who and what I am, what my beliefs and values are. I also prevent the perpetrators from pretending any longer that they are doing it in my name too. In the words of T. E. Hill, Jr., I protest against their crimes or dissociate myself from them "not so much to keep [my] own hands clean as to avoid white-washing the bloody hands of others" ("Symbolic Protest and Calculated Silence," _Philosophy & Public Affairs_, 1979). It seems to me that the greater the evil or injustice one should protest or distance oneself from, the more stringent the duty to do so.
Role of Academics
Serbian academics, with very few exceptions, have either taken part in the shaping, promoting, and even carrying out the genocidal Greater Serbian project, or have failed to take any significant steps to dissociate themselves from it. Those who did nothing could, and should, have dissociated themselves. They have a particularly weighty moral duty to do so, since the evil and injustice involved is of the most serious kind: what is being perpetrated in their name too are war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.
Moreover, as academics, they are particularly well placed to make their stand known. I therefore believe that academics the world over should dissociate themselves from their Serbian colleagues.
The way to do that the only appropriate way is a comprehensive boycott. We should not collaborate with them in any way, in any framework. Their research and creative work should not receive any financial assistance from abroad. There should be no exchange of visits. They should not be invited to conferences or given visiting appointments at our colleges, universities, or research institutions. They should not be able to publish their works abroad. Nor should we travel to Serbia, take part in scholarly conferences there, or the like.
Rationale for Boycott
Why? Is this going to exert any influence on them? It might. Some of them, at least, do appreciate the opportunities bound up with being part of a wider academic and cultural community. But even if we cannot be confident that the boycott will have any great influence on Serbian academics, we should boycott them nevertheless.
We should do so in order to express our moral repugnance at the deeply racist and genocidal project of Greater Serbia, and the war crimes and crimes against humanity that have been committed, and continue to be committed, in the course of its realization and of all those who devised it and took part in its realization, or have failed to dissociate themselves from it, although they could, and should, have done so. To do anything less, to carry on "business as usual" with Serbian academics, would be tantamount to saying to them that we do not find them at fault in any serious way.
And by saying that, we would be compromising our own commitment to the most elementary moral principles, the most basic values of our civilization, which the Serbs have flouted for five years now. We would also be displaying a total lack of concern for, and sympathy with, the hundreds of thousands of murdered civilians in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the millions of non-Serbs who have been dispossessed and expelled from their ancestral homes, or subjected to a regime of apartheid, in those two countries and within the internationally recognized borders of Serbia itself.
While this boycott should be as comprehensive and thorough as possible in terms of what it covers, it should also be selective in terms of whom it covers. It should cover the overwhelming majority of Serbian academics but there are also those who ought to be exempted. There are Serbian academics who have publicly condemned and protested Serbia's war on its western neighbors and the crimes committed in its course, and dissociated themselves from the Greater Serbia project.
It took courage to do so, for they live in an atmosphere of intolerance and outright hostility, and have been declared "bad Serbs," traitors, and the like by almost everybody else in their country. Most of them are members of the Belgrade Circle, a group of some four hundred academics and other intellectuals. They deserve our sympathy, respect, and support. But they are, sadly, such a tiny and conspicuous minority, that it should not be difficult to distinguish them from the rest.
Since its point is to express our emphatic moral condemnation of, and dissociation from, our Serbian colleagues, the boycott cannot infringe their academic freedom or freedom of expression. As J. S. Mill says in a different context, "we have a right...in various ways, to act upon our unfavorable opinion of anyone, not to the oppression of his individuality, but in the exercise of ours."
An Exceptional Case
Still, academics might find it particularly difficult to boycott other academics. For they are committed to reason and dialog, and are normally expected to carry on a dialog with other academics, even when the collaboration and communication between countries and nations get damaged or completely broken off because of a clash of economic interests or deep political differences.
However, the differences the international community has with Serbia are no mere differences of economy or politics. They concern the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide. The differences the international community has with Serbia are over the most basic moral values, values that help define our civilization. When these values are flouted, academics should not fail to take a stand.
from the "Nacertanije" to the Yugoslav Kingdom - by Steven W. Sowards
Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences - MEMORANDUM 1986
Slobodan Milosevic's speech in Kosova (1989)
Vojislav Kostunica – Milosevic’s Opponent or Successor?
Vojislav Kostunica in Kosova (1998) (photo 756 ko)
"Boycott of Serbian Academics"
by Igor Primoratz, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1995
HRW - report 2000
KOSOVO: Rape as a weapon of "Ethnic cleansing"
The Expulsion of the Albanians:
By Academic Vaso Cubrilovic