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

TransConflict is pleased to present part seventeen 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

The indictment of Radovan Karadžić focuses on “an overarching joint criminal enterprise to permanently remove Bosnian-Muslim and Bosnian-Croat inhabitants from the territories of BiH claimed as Bosnian-Serb territory.”[122] Again, the OTP differentiates between different charges: genocide, persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, and inhumane acts (forcible transfer).

In some municipalities, between 31 March 1992 and 31 December 1992 this campaign of persecution “included or escalated to include conduct that manifested an intent to destroy in part the national, ethnic and/or religious groups of Bosnian-Muslims and/or Bosnian-Croats as such.” In Bratunac, Foča, Kljuć, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Vlasenica and Zvornik, a significant section of the non-Serb population were targeted for destruction.[123] The OTP alleges that “members of this joint criminal enterprise” shared the intent to partially destroy these groups in these regions. It also asserts that the leadership foresaw that genocide might be perpetrated by those who carried out the crimes of deportation and forcible transfer.[124]

The ICTY has judged the mass killings following the military conquest of the then UN-protected safe area of Srebrenica in July 1995 to be the first legally recognized genocide in Europe since World War II. The Prosecutor has pressed the same charge in the ongoing trials against Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić over the aforementioned crimes committed in the Posavina corridor and eastern Bosnia. Although the government of Republika Srpska has acknowledged the crimes committed in Srebrenica in mid-1995 in a report published in 2004, the entity’s
war veterans association still denies that such crimes ever happened, pointing instead to the victims on the Serb side.[125] Nonetheless, as discussed in chapter 6, “Safe Areas,” the ICTY has compiled massive proof of the “vast amount of planning and high-level coordination that had to be invested in killing thousands of men in a few days.”[126] The Tribunal has also provided overwhelming evidence of a massive effort by the VRS to exhume as many corpses as possible from mass graves and disperse them in remote areas—measures that would not have been undertaken had the majority of the bodies been combat victims. Also, there is forensic evidence that most of the victims were indeed killed in cold blood. One question that does remain is whether Serb authorities intended from the outset to exterminate Srebrenica’s male population or Ratko Mladić made that decision only after learning that ARBiH units had escaped to Tuzla.

A two-hour video tape in which members of the paramilitary unit Scorpions execute young men suggests at the very least Belgrade’s involvement in the massacre. The ICTY prosecution claims that the Serbian interior ministry in Belgrade that controlled the Scorpions must have given consent for the latter to operate on Bosnian territory and has indicted JNA army chief Momčilo Perišić for providing assistance to the VRS and not preventing or punishing crimes committed in the Sarajevo and Srebrenica safe areas.[127]

The judgment against former JNA Lieutenant Colonel Radislav Krstić, who commanded the Drina Corps from 13 July 1995 through the end of the war, discusses extensively the question of whether events in Srebrenica fall under the parameters of genocide. It concludes that the intent to kill all the Bosnian Muslim men of military age in Srebrenica constitutes an intent to destroy in part the Bosniak group and, therefore, must be qualified as a genocide. This view was supported by the Appeals Chamber. The killing was engineered and supervised by some members of the main staff of the Serb armed forces—which constitutes the requisite proof of specific intent. In the OTP’s view:

By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the forty thousand Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity. The Bosnian Serb forces were aware, when they embarked on this genocidal venture, that the harm they caused would continue to plague the Bosnian Muslims. The Appeals Chamber states unequivocally that the law condemns, in appropriate terms, the deep and lasting injury inflicted, and calls the massacre at Srebrenica by its proper name: genocide. Those responsible will bear this stigma, and it will serve as a warning to those who may in future contemplate the commission of such a heinous act.[128]

The judges made clear, however, that “forcible transfer does not constitute in and of itself a genocidal act.”[129] Such a decision only encourages scholars to continue to debate the conceptual dimensions of genocide. Helen Fine has suggested a paradigm for the detection of genocide; it includes these conditions:

  • There was a sustained attack or continuity of attacks by the perpetrator to physically destroy group members;
  • The perpetrator was a collective or organized actor (usually the state) or commander of organized actors;
  • The victims were selected because they were members of the collectivity;
  • The victims were defenseless or were killed regardless of whether they surrendered or resisted; and
  • The destruction of group members undertaken to with intent to kill and murder was sanctioned by the perpetrator.[130]

It has been pointed out, on the other hand, that not every single crime should and could be viewed as genocide, which is characterized by the particular intent to destroy a group “as such.” Some continue to argue that genocide, the “ultimate crime,” should not be diluted by too broad an interpretation but should be reserved only for acts of exceptional gravity and magnitude.[131] In any event, debates over terminology should not divert us from recognizing and concurring with the overwhelming body of evidence of the crimes themselves.

‘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:


122) IT–95–5/18–PT, The Prosecutor versus Radovan Karadzić. The Prosecution’s marked up indictment, 19 October 2009, 18.

123) Ibid. 19.

124) Ibid., 18-19. Trial Chamber III of the ICTY, on 28 June 2012, granted Radovan Karadžić’s oral motion for a judgment of acquittal in relation to the charge with genocide for the crimes committed between March and December 1992 in several municipalities of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The press release states that “Having reviewed the totality of the evidence with respect to the killing of, serious bodily or mental harm to, the forcible displacement of, and conditions of life inflicted on Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, the Chamber found that the evidence even if taken at its highest, does not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that genocide occurred in the Municipalities.” The Chamber dismissed his motion in relation to the other counts of the indictment.,
accessed 13 August 2012.

125) Nerma Jelačić and Mirna Mekić, “Serbs Subvert Srebrenica Commemoration,” IWPR, Balkan Crisis Report, no. 563, 30 June 2005,, accessed 10 October 2008.

126) Ibid.

127) Del Ponte and Sudetić, Madame Prosecutor, 317.

128) ICTY, Case No. IT–98–33–A, para. 37.

129) Ibid., para. 33.

130) Quoted in George J. Andreopoulus, “Introduction: The Calculus of Genocide,” in Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions, ed. George J. Andreopoulus (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), 5.

131) ICTY, Case No. IT 95–18–R61/Case No. IT–95-5–R61, 27 June 1996, Prosecutor of the Tribunal v. Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, Rule 61 Hearing, Opening Statement by Mr Eric Ostberg, Senior Trial Attorney, provisional transcript, 18–28, esp. 25,, accessed 10 October 2008.

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