Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995

TransConflict is pleased to present a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995″, which “aims at describing causes, features, and consequences of ethnic cleansing as a policy in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war.”

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Conflict Background


By Marie-Janine Calic

Public perception has associated the Yugoslav wars of succession with all forms of ethnically inspired violence, from murder, rape and torture to mass expulsion. Many of these systematic violations of international humanitarian law occurred in the context of “ethnic cleansing” – a purposeful policy that “means rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons from another ethnic or religious group.”[1] The violent break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia resulted in the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. In 1991, half a million people were displaced in Croatia. Between 1992 – 1995, over half of Bosnia- Herzegovina’s 4.4 million people were uprooted, including an estimated 1.3 million who were internally displaced, some 500,000 who were refugees in neighboring countries, and around. 700,000 who had fled to Western European countries.[2] As a result, many municipalities in that country have changed their ethnic structure substantially and, perhaps, permanently.

This report aims at describing causes, features and consequences of “ethnic cleansing” as a policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war, which has posed substantial challenges to our research team. No other subject is so heavily charged with emotion, selective perception and partiality as mass crimes and the phenomenon of “ethnic cleansing”. Conflicting perspectives and controversies concern both the quality and quantity of violence, and there is an obvious tendency of politicization. For instance, the number of victims on either side continues to be a controversial subject; figures presented often appear inflated. Interpretations constantly evolve in light of the quickly expanding body of primary evidence and secondary literature about the Yugoslav wars of succession. It is therefore important to keep some key concerns in mind:

First, the attempt to conceptualize “ethnic cleansing” as a policy involves nearly all crucial controversial issues that have been debated since the break-up of Yugoslavia, such as the causes of the war, and the role and intentions of political leaders. These issues have been dealt with in-depth by other team reports of this project, and it appeared neither justified nor feasible to include differing accounts and competing interpretations of all these important aspects of the subject.

Second, systematic analysis of “ethnic cleansing” requires a certain selectivity of facts, since the report aims at recounting main developments in an exemplary and systematic way. Space limitations simply do not permit either a comprehensive narrative of events or of all the atrocities committed during the war.

Third, the reliability of sources has been crucial. Given the limited resources at our disposal, it has been impossible to conduct primary research into mass crimes. We have, therefore relied heavily on investigations of the ICTY, international institutions, and the rather finite research conducted by individual scholars, most of whom are closely associated with a particular viewpoint Although partisans of one side or another have questioned the impartiality of the ICTY, its investigative teams have conducted an enormous amount of research that meets high scholarly standards. Unfortunately, much of its work has not yet been made available to the community of scholars. We stress, therefore, that this report is part of a much longer process that cannot be deemed “final” in the absence of conclusive evidence.

Fourth, comparability and interpretation of events have given rise to dramatically different interpretations. There is still no consensus with regard to terminology, categorization and interpretation of the phenomenon of “ethnic cleansing”.[3] For instance, the question of whether “ethnic cleansing” should per se be equated with genocide is highly controversial. There is little understanding that, although diverse acts of violence may share the same features, such as mass expulsion and large-scale atrocities, the underlying motivation and intention of major actors may be totally diverse in each single case. This reports aims at providing careful analytical distinction, assuming that each set of events in which mass crimes occurred needs to be analyzed separately, but without precluding any possible interpretation from the outset.

Fifth, there has been an inherent, although often unintended, tendency to “measure” guilt and attribute it collectively to the parties involved. At the same time, all parties to the conflict perceive themselves as the real victims of the war, and believe that unjustices continue to go unaddressed. “Ethnic cleansing” and other crimes were evidently perpetrated by all parties in the conflict, and there were victims on all sides, although the gravity and dimension differed markedly, as the UN Commission of Experts has clearly stated.

At the beginning of the war, most of the violations were committed by Serb forces against Bosniacs, and, to a lesser extent, Croats, as the result of a highly developed policy of “ethnic cleansing”. Also, Croat forces conducted “ethnic cleansing” campaigns against Serbs in eastern and western Slavonia and in the Krajina region of Croatia, as well as against Bosniacs in Mostar and central Bosnia. Bosniac forces have victimized Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but in lesser numbers, with foreful population removal occuring only in limited areas.[4] Later, there were more massive campaigns against Serbs as well, especially in 1995, when a large number of the Croatian Serbs fled their home territory. During 1992-1995, Roma were also subjected to “ethnic cleansing” by Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces. Against this background, there are also conflicting positions concerning “moral equivalence”: Do all parties to the conflict really bear equal responsibility? Did all sides suffer equally in the war, and is there a (perceived) hierarchy among the victims? The community of analysts is divided among those who take an explicit moralist attitude and those who do not. This has resulted in unscholarly polemics against alternative approaches. Hopefully, the ICTY´s work of creating an objective record of events, and establishing individual blame instead of collective guilt, will effect a consensus in the interpretation of events in the future. Until then, this report will avoid making summary judgments about individual perpetrators or the belligerents themselves in the absence of conclusive evidence. Instead, it will try to conceptualize the phenomenon of “ethnic cleansing” as a policy by analyzing its aims, mechanisms, and consequences, while recapitulating the main controversies surrounding it.

In light of the aforementioned challenges, this reports undertakes the following: First, it discusses meaning and content of the term “ethnic cleansing”. Second, it gives a narrative of key events and analyzes main features of “ethnic cleansing” as a policy. Third, it presents two of the most contentious issues: the number of victims and possible distinctions between the terms “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide”.

The analysis is based on various sources: a) a review of the literature and recent studies on the phenomenon of “ethnic cleansing”; b) analysis of case material produced by the ICTY and other international institutions; c) specific research by team members, in particular the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo [5], and witness statements collected by the Institute for Recent History of Serbia in Belgrade.

‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


1) Final Report of the Commission of Experts established pursuant to SCR 790 (1992), S/1994/674, 27 May 1994, Annex IV, p. 5.

2) Norwegian Refugee Council/Global IDP Project: Profile of Internal Displacement: Bosnia and Herzegovina. compilation of the information available in the Global IDP Database of the Norwegian Refugee Council (as of 24 March, 2005), p. 13.

3) Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, Ethnic Cleansing (New York, 1996); Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth Century Europe (Cambridge, 2001); Drazen Petrović, “Ethnic Cleansing – An Attempt at Methodology, in European Journal of International Law, 5:3 (1994), 1-19. Cathie Carmichael, Ethnic Cleansing in the Balkans. Nationalism and the Destruction of Tradition (London/New York, 2002); Philipp Ther, “A Century of Forced Migration: The Origins and Consequences of ’Ethnic Cleansing’,” in Redrawing Nations. Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, idem and Ana Siljak, eds (Lanham/Boulder/New York/Oxford, 2001), 43-72; Anna Simons: “Making sense of Ethnic Cleansing,” in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 22 (January-March 1999) 1: 1-20.

4) Final Report of the Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to SCR 790 (1992), S/1994/674, 27 May 1994, Annex IV, p. 5 and 21.

5) The RDC is a non-governmental organization registered on the state level in BiH, formed in April 2004. It is the successor organization to the State Commission for Gathering Facts about War Crimes, which was established by the Presidency of BiH in April 1992.

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