Ethnic Cleansing And Genocide In Bosnia

In February 2007, Judge Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), announced the findings of the first legal case concerning the crime of genocide perpetrated by a state; in which Bosnia accused Serbia and Montenegro of committing the “crime of crimes”. The Judge made it clear that the Court was only concerned with genocide in its legal terms; meaning, the definition stated in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Frequently criticized by its narrowness, this definition considers genocide

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any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [1]

The “national, ethnical, racial or religious group” in this case was identified by the Court as the Bosnian Muslims. The investigation revolved around the search for the specific intent, the dolus specialis, that distinguishes the crime of genocide from any other war crimes or crimes against humanity. Finally, the Court concluded that, during the Srebrenica Massacre, the Main Staff of the VRS (the army of the Republika Srpska) actually possessed “the intent to destroy in part” the group of the Bosnian Muslims. [2]

At the same time that it was confirmed that genocide took place in Srebrenica in July 1995, it was also established that genocide did not happen in any other moment of the conflict. The verdict implied that the mass killing in Srebrenica followed a different pattern from the previous atrocities carried out by Bosnian Serb forces in other parts of the country. In addition, the Court did not find adequate evidences that could prove that the government of Serbia and Montenegro was fully aware of what was exactly going on in Srebrenica, and in other parts of the Bosnian territory. Nonetheless, the Court concluded that the state of Serbia and Montenegro did not fulfill its responsibility to prevent genocide, as it is stated in the UN Genocide Convention. [3]

Despite the verdict and its validity, legal arguments are not the same as facts and law – fortunately – does not define reality. [4] Therefore, the ICJ findings are not bound to limit the conception of genocide adopted by scholars, usually broader than the legal one. [5] It is the purpose of this analysis to examine arguments that support the claim that genocide against the Bosnians Muslims happened in Bosnia; not only in Srebrenica, but also in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Prijedor and other places around the country. In order to do so, an overview of the conflict will be presented and its key participants, main motivating factors and principal events will also be identified.

The conflict

The context in the end of the 1980s was one of general insecurity and uncertainty, as deep changes were taking place throughout the Socialist bloc and in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was not different. The free elections, held for the first time in 1990, and its results showed the strength of nationalistic forces that had been rising while the failure of the federation became apparent. Amid economic problems, uncertainty concerning the future and political instability regarding the upcoming power configuration, it is not surprising that people sought security in narrower, more localized identity groups – a phenomenon that often leads to conflicts being labeled ‘ethnic’ or ‘religious’. [6] That was exactly what happened in the former multi-ethnic Yugoslavia; as Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks [7] sought to enhance their own group identity in opposition to each other and mutually hostile nationalisms emerged.

Not without having to resort to armed struggle, Croatia and Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991 and, by 1992, were already recognized as independent countries by the international community. [8] Belgrade’s attack on the Slovenian front proceeded in a smaller scale than in Croatia, where a much larger Serbian population constituted a better justification for a big war campaign. Nevertheless, the greatest of all Yugoslav wars was yet to come, as Bosnia, after a contentious referendum, opted for independence in March 1992.

The republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted an exception in former Yugoslavia, as it had no major ethno-national group. [9] While Slovenia and Croatia were following their paths to become a nation-state based on the sovereignty of their majority national group, in Bosnia the situation was more complex. In fact, Serb and Croat leaders negotiated a division agreement regarding Bosnian territory without consulting the large Bosniak population and, challenging the constitution of an independent Bosnia, created their own official and autonomous entities: Republika Srpska and Herceg-Bosna, respectively.

It is true that Croatians, and also Serbians, have been the target of atrocities in Bosnia; however, that does not change the fact that the campaign of terror carried out by Serb central authorities against Bosniaks was the greatest in scale and the one responsible for most of the killings, torture, rapes and deportations. [10] There was no space in Serb nationalistic ideology for an undesirable group in what it was perceived as part of the Serb “homeland”. Political leaders explored memories geographically attached to Bosnia, as well as historical episodes that emphasized a past of persecution shared among Serbs. Vamik Volkan, in his book Bloodlines: from ethnic pride to ethnic terrorism, addressed the process of victimization of the Serb population caused by what he considers to be a “chosen trauma”; the conscious decision made by the ruling elite to bring back the old memories of the Battle of Kosovo, in 1389, or the not so old reminiscences of the death camps and massacres conducted by the Ustashi Croat regime against Serbians during the Second World War. [11]

Victimhood, ancestral lodging and mythical heroism were all present in Serbian nationalism [12] ; which, on the level of ideas, advocated for the constitution of the Greater Serbia, while on the more objective level, aimed at the preservation of the centralized Yugoslav state – whose bureaucracy and military were still Serb-dominated. [13] Subjectivities played a major role in shaping Serbians’ perceptions on the Bosniak population. As Volkan noticed, “Bosnian Muslims, seen as an extension of Ottomans, served as a reservoir for the massive projections of Serbs unwanted qualities, including aggression”. [14]

Increasingly stereotyped images of Bosniaks were portrayed in the Serbian media, focusing on their Islamic religion. [15] The denigration campaign of Muslims also had in the Serbian Orthodox Church an ally that did not spare efforts to spread the message that the Islam was an alien religion in an area that had “traditionally” belonged to the Orthodox creed. [16] Vilification soon turned into dehumanization and provided the justification to cruel attacks; which comprised gross human rights violations, rapes, deprivation of food, water, electricity and executions.

Serb guerillas, paramilitary groups and the Yugoslav People’s Army – later replaced by the army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) -created an unbearable environment and terrorized Bosnian Muslims, and also Croats, causing them to flee their homes. It is extremely difficult to estimate the number of internally displaced people, refugees and, specially, deaths that resulted from the conflict. There is a lot of divergence between the statistics, depending on the institute that conducted the research. [17] Nonetheless, scholars frequently estimate that “in the three years from 1992 to 1995 the war killed up to a quarter of million people, and sent more than three million others down the road to exile”. [18]

Generally, forcing people to flee involved encircling the villages, cutting off all communications and going door to door, throwing out everyone that could be found before setting the place on fire. This process, which also included lootings, killings, rapes and torture, easily fits in several definitions of ethnic cleansing; which

in its broader meaning, implies differential treatment and discrimination with a view to putting on pressure to comply, to emigrate, to give up and to assimilate, and in its narrower or restrictive meaning, it denotes destruction, which, through acts of terrorism, forceful relocation, and expulsion, leads ultimately to genocide. [19]

It can be difficult to differentiate between ethnic cleansing and genocide. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide deliberately excluded from the final draft “measures intended to oblige members of a group to abandon their homes in order to escape the threat of subsequent ill-treatment” – a topic of discussion that was present in the previous versions. [20] The intention was to establish a strict definition of a term that was supposed to designate the “crime of crimes”. The expulsion of an undesirable population would constitute a crime against humanity, while only the intent to destroy an undesirable people would qualify as genocide.

Even though the ICJ did not find evidence of this destructive intention in the atrocities committed by Serbian forces – with the exception of the Srebrenica massacre -, it is possible to argue that the destruction of Bosnian cultural monuments and institutions constitute “evidence of Serb desire to destroy Muslims as a group; hence, genocidal intention”. [21] Markusen and Mennecke noticed that in the light of the demolition of mosques, libraries, museums and graveyards that took place all around Bosnia.

In The bridge betrayed: religion and genocide in Bosnia, Michael Sells reports how the Bosniak Aida Musanovic interpreted the destruction of the Bosnian National Library, in 1992:

In the fire of the National Library, she realized that what she was experiencing was not only war but also something else. The centuries of culture that fell back in ash onto the besieged city revealed a secret. The gunners on the hills above Sarajevo did not seek to defeat an enemy army; at that time, there was no organized, opposing army. They sought to take territory, but not only territory. They sought political concessions, but also something more. Their goal was the eradication of a people and all evidence of that people’s culture and existence. [22]

After the cultural sites were all destroyed, the conquerors could pretend the culture and the people that once lived there had, in fact, never existed. The rewriting of history, with its revisions and denials, is a trend that frequently accompanies genocide. [23]


There is plenty of literature that attempts to provide accounts of the events of the Bosnian war; the atrocities that took place in Sarajevo, Prijedor, Banja Luka, Zvornik, Srebrenica and many other regions of the country. Also, attempts have been made to evaluate the participation of the international community; which had assured that the holocaust had been the last genocide to take place in Europe and, nonetheless, watched for more than three years the conflict in the Balkans and witnessed the cruelty of death camps, torture and rapes – whether through the media coverage or through the reports of humanitarian workers. The decision to assertively intervene in the war was only taken after the occurrence of the Srebrenica massacre; where more than seven thousand Bosniak men were murdered, in an area which the United Nations had undertaken to protect. [24]

The credibility of the international institutions was severely damaged after their ineptitude to deal with the conflict in Bosnia. It is hard for them to admit that genocide happened, since doing so is acknowledging their failure to observe the Genocide Convention and to protect the human rights. Notwithstanding, as it was showed in this paper, genocide did occur in Bosnia and its main victims were the Bosniaks. Central political authorities in Belgrade opted for the total solution and, although the Serb forces did not destroy the whole group of the Bosnian Muslims, that does not mean they did not intend to do it.