Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995 – part sixteen

TransConflict is pleased to present part sixteen of 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

War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity, Genocide

There has been considerable controversy over whether or not actions that are committed in the framework of ethnic cleansing constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. From the outset, there has been a broad public perception that the atrocities committed by Serbian forces on the territory of the former Yugoslavia constitute genocide.[108] Both Bosnian government officials and scholars insist that the Bosniaks were victims of a genocide that was planned and executed by Serbs.[109] Smail Čekić charges both Serbia and Croatia with genocide, referring to a “joint criminal undertaking” in Zagreb and Belgrade to establish “the Greater Serbia and the Greater Croatia states. The goal of this ideology, politics and practice was a war to conquer territories, a ‘habitat,’ to take another people’s country (Bosnia-Hercegovina).”[110] He equates “Serb and Croat projects” and their “goal to conquer, divide and liquidate the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and exterminate the Bosniaks or reduce their number to a meaningless ethnic group.”[111]

In 1993, the Bosnian government filed a case against the government of Serbia and Montenegro before the ICJ in The Hague, arguing that Yugoslavia had “planned, prepared, conspired, promoted, encouraged, aided and abetted and committed” genocide against its population. Belgrade filed a counter suit accusing Bosnia-Hercegovina of committing genocide against the Bosnian Serb population (that suit was dropped in 2000). Hearings of the case against Serbia began in February 2006. It explicitly charged the systematic practice of ethnic cleansing of the citizens and sovereign territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina and claimed that the responsibility lay with an entire state and not simply individuals. On 26 February 2007, the ICJ cleared Serbia of genocide charges, ruling that “Serbia has not committed genocide through its organs or persons,” nor was Serbia “complicit in genocide.” But the court found that Belgrade did not use its influence to prevent genocide and that it failed to punish those who carried out massacres.[112] Moreover, the ICJ rendered its judgment without examining evidence that the Serbian government had provided the ICTY case against Slobodan Milošević. One individual who did see these documents was ICTY prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who writes that:

The Supreme Defense Council’s minutes and other secret personnel files provide compelling evidence of Serbia’s control and direction of the Serb war effort in BiH. They detail how Belgrade financed and supplied the Serbs’ war effort. They show how the VRS . . . was an appendage of the Yugoslav army. . . . that Serbian forces, including secret police, played a role in the takeover of Srebrenica and in the preparation of the massacre there.[113]

The issue of whether or not Serbian actions in Bosnia-Hercegovina constitute genocide divides the communities of scholars, analysts, and politicians. It has been rightly noted that there is a correlation between methodology and conclusions.[114] Authors who apply definitions of genocide based on political or social scientific considerations tend to equate ethnic cleansing with genocide. For instance, Norman Cigar argues that Serbian political, cultural, and ecclesiastical elites prepared a climate conducive to the execution of genocide during the war and that Serbian forces committed genocide against Bosniaks.[115] Also, Michael A. Sells supports the interpretation that Serbian forces intended to destroy Bosnia’s Muslims as a people.[116] By the same token, some Western and Bosnian scholars maintain that the term ethnic cleansing was only used as a euphemism in order to conceal the hidden agenda of genocide.[117] Serb officials and scholars have countered by charging the other side with genocide, recently claiming that “perhaps a greater genocide was committed against the Serbs in Sarajevo than against Bosniaks in Srebrenica.”[118] Nevertheless, they have yet to provide sufficient data to support their claims, which the ICTY has not supported with a
charge of genocide.

A more differentiated assessment appears if a legal definition is applied. In strictly legal terms, several of the instruments of ethnic cleansing employed in former Yugoslavia merit prosecution under the statutory provisions of the ICTY [119]:

  • Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (including willful killing; torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments; willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health; extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; compelling a prisoner of war or a civilian to serve in the forces of a hostile power; willfully depriving a prisoner of war or a civilian of the rights of fair and regular trial; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a civilian; taking civilians as hostages)
  • Violations of the laws or customs of war (employment of poisonous weapons or other weapons calculated to cause unnecessary suffering; wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity; attack, or bombardment, by whatever means, of undefended towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings; seizure of, destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science; plunder of public or private property)
  • Genocide (acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group)
  • Crimes against humanity (directed against any civilian population—murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation; imprisonment; torture; rape; persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds; other inhumane acts)

Although various definitions of genocide have been put forward, many scholars have implicitly or explicitly accepted the definition proposed by the UN Genocide Convention of 9 December 1948 (Art. 2), which defines genocide as the intentional destruction of a group, in whole or in part [120]:

genocide means 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.

To date, the OTP has characterized only a few of the most extreme examples of ethnic cleansing committed by Serb forces in Bosnia-Hercegovina as acts of genocide. Beside the indictment against Slobodan Milošević, those against Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadžić and VRS Commander Ratko Mladić conclude that they should be charged with genocide on the grounds of internment of civilians in detention facilities and inhumane treatment therein. It also claims that those plans of the political and military leadership contained elements that would lead to the destruction of the non-Serb groups. Thus “the project of an ethnically homogenous State formulated against a backdrop of mixed populations
necessarily envisages the exclusion of any group not identified with the Serbian one.”[121]

‘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.

Previous parts of the chapter ‘Ethnic cleansing and war crimes, 1991-1995’ are available through the following links:


108) Roy Gutman, A Witness to Genocide: The 1993 Pulitzer Prize-Winning Dispatches on the Ethnic Cleansing of Bosnia (New York: Macmillan, 1993); Smail Čekić, Agresija na Bosnu i genocid nad Bošnjacima 1991–1993. (Aggression against Bosnia and Genocide against Bosniaks) (Sarajevo: NIPP Ljiljan, 1994); Smail Čekić, ed., Genocid u BiH 1991–1995 (Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1991–1995) (Sarajevo: Institut za Istraživanje Zločina protiv Čovječnosti i Međunarodnog Prava, 1997); Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia, 60; Thomas Cushman and Stjepan G. Mestrović, eds., This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Michael Anthony Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); Damir Mirković, “Ethnic Conflict and Genocide: Reflections on Ethnic Cleansing in the Former Yugoslavia,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 548 (November 1996): 191–99.

109) See Tokača, Violation of Norms of International Humanitarian Law.

110) Čekić, Aggression against Bosnia, 1249.

111) Ibid., 1250.

112) Merdijana Sadović, “Serbia Acquitted of Genocide,” IWPR, Tribunal Update, no. 490, 26 February 2007,, accessed 10 October 2008.

113) Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetić, Madame Prosecutor (New York: Other Press, 2009), 356–58.

114) Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, 15.

115) Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia.

116) Sells, Bridge Betrayed. Ethnic Cleansing and War Crimes, 1991-1995 u 153

117) Čekić, Genocid u BiH 1991–1995; Bennett, Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse.

118) Quoted from Aldijana Osmeragić, “Nad Srbima u Sarajevu počinjen genocid veći nego u Srebrenici” (Genocide against Serbs in Sarajevo Was Larger than in Srebrenica), Oslobodjenje, 26 March 2005.

119) Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,, accessed 10 October 2008.

120), accessed 19 October 2008.

121) ICTY, Case No. IT–95–5–R61/IT–95–18–R61, 53.

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