The Yugoslav War



Populations of the Former Yugoslavia

Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks were the three largest South Slavic groups that inhabited the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Learning Objectives

Describe the similarities and differences between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Until the 19th century, the term Bosniak (Bošnjak) referred to all inhabitants of Bosnia regardless of religious affiliation; over time, a growing sense of Bosnian nationhood was cherished mainly by Muslim Bosnians, associating the Bosniak identity with one faith.
  • After World War I, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later called the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, or the First Yugoslavia) was formed, recognizing only those three nationalities in its constitution as Serbian and Croatian nationalists attempted to absorb Bosniak ethnicities into their populations.
  • Following the liberation of Yugoslavia, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia reorganized the country into federal republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
  • Official state policy prescribed that Yugoslavia’s peoples were equal groups that would coexist peacefully within the federation.
  • Josip Broz Tito, the first president of Yugoslavia, expressed his desire for an undivided Yugoslav ethnicity; however, distinctions among ethnic groups persisted, reinforced by disparate histories of foreign occupation.
  • In 1964, the Fourth Congress of the Bosnian Party assured Bosniaks the right to self-determination, prompting the recognition of Bosnian Muslims as a distinct nation at a meeting of the Bosnian Central Committee in 1968, though not under the Bosniak or Bosnian name.

Key Terms

  • South Slavs: A subgroup of Slavic peoples who speak South Slavic languages. They inhabit a contiguous region in the Balkan Peninsula, southern Pannonian Plain, and eastern Alps, and are geographically separated from the body of West Slavic and East Slavic people by the Romanians, Hungarians, and Austrians. The South Slavs include the Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes.

Following the liberation of Yugoslavia, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia reorganized the country into federal republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Further, two autonomous provinces were created within the Serbian republic based on the presence of minorities in the region: Vojvodina (inhabited by a Hungarian minority) and Kosovo and Metohija (inhabited by an Albanian minority). The term “nationality” (narodnost) was used to describe the status of Albanians, Hungarians, and other non-constitutive peoples, distinguishing them from the nations. This combination of historical and ethnic criteria only applied to Serbia and not Italian-inhabited Istria or Serb-inhabited Krajina, for example. The word “nation” (nacija, narod) was used to denote the country’s constitutive peoples (konstitutivne nacije), or residents of the federal republics.

Official state policy prescribed that Yugoslavia’s peoples were equal groups that would coexist peacefully within the federation. This policy was distilled into a slogan: “brotherhood and unity” and provided for in the 1974 Yugoslav constitution.

South Slavs

The concept of Yugoslavia as a single state for all South Slavic peoples emerged in the late 17th century and gained prominence through the Illyrian movement of the 19th century. The name Yugoslavia (sometimes spelled Jugoslavia) is a combination of the Slavic words jug (south) and sloveni (Slavs). When the term Yugoslav was first introduced, it was meant to unite a common people of South Slavs. Josip Broz Tito, the first president of Yugoslavia, expressed his desire for an undivided Yugoslav ethnicity; however, distinctions among ethnic groups persisted, reinforced by disparate histories of foreign occupation. As of 1981, Serbs were the largest ethnic population within Yugoslavia, representing 36.3% of the population. Croats comprised the second largest ethnic majority, representing 19.7% of the population, and Muslims, or Bosniaks, comprised 8.9% of the population.

The maps shows that Slavic is the national language in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.

South Slavic Europe: The green area shows countries where a South Slavic language is the national language. The dark gray areas of the map show other Slavic-speaking countries.

Bosniaks

Until the 19th century, the term Bosniak (Bošnjak) came to refer to all inhabitants of Bosnia regardless of religious affiliation. Terms such as “Boşnak milleti”, “Boşnak kavmi”, and “Boşnak taifesi” (all meaning, roughly, “the Bosnian people”) were used in the Ottoman Empire to describe Bosnians in an ethnic or tribal sense. After the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, the Austrian administration officially endorsed Bošnjaštvo (“Bosniakhood”) as the basis of a multi-confessional Bosnian nation. The policy aspired to isolate Bosnia and Herzegovina from its irredentist neighbors (Orthodox Serbia, Catholic Croatia, and the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire) and to negate the concept of Croatian and Serbian nationhood, which had already begun to take ground among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Catholic and Orthodox communities, respectively. Nevertheless, a sense of Bosnian nationhood was cherished mainly by Muslim Bosnians, but fiercely opposed by nationalists fro  Serbia and Croatia who were instead opting to claim the Bosnian Muslim population as their own. After World War I, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later called the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was formed and recognized only those three nationalities in its constitution.

After World War II, in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnian Muslims continued to be treated as a religious group instead of an ethnic one. In the 1948 census, Bosnia and Herzegovian’s Muslims had three options for self-identification: Serb-Muslim, Croat-Muslim, or ethnically undeclared Muslim. In the 1953 census, the category “Yugoslav, ethnically undeclared” was introduced, and the overwhelming majority of those who declared themselves as such were Muslim  Bosniaks were recognized as an ethnic group in 1961, but not as a nationality. Nevertheless, many Bosniak communist intellectuals argued that the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina were in fact a distinct native Slavic people that should be recognized as a nation.

In 1964, the Fourth Congress of the Bosnian Party assured Bosniaks the right to self-determination, prompting the recognition of Bosnian Muslims as a distinct nation at a meeting of the Bosnian Central Committee in 1968, though not under the Bosniak or the Bosnian name. As a compromise, the Constitution of Yugoslavia was amended to list “Muslims” in a national sense, recognizing a constitutive nation but not the Bosniak name. The use of “Muslim” as an ethnic denomination was criticized early on, however. Sometimes other terms, such as Muslim with a capital “M” were used (that is, “musliman” was a practicing Muslim, while “Musliman” was a member of the Muslim nation; Serbo-Croatian uses capital letters for names of peoples, but small for names of adherents).

NATO and UN Intervention

Although NATO and UN intervention into the Bosnian conflict was significant, its outcomes were often controversial.

Learning Objectives

Assess the successes and limitations of NATO and UN interventions in the Bosnian War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The UN repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to stop the Bosnian War, and the much-touted Vance-Owen Peace Plan in the first half of 1993 made little impact.
  • The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formally established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council on May 25, 1993.
  • The establishment of UN Safe Areas is considered one of the most controversial decisions of the United Nations, due to uncertainty about how UN member states could protect what had become a war-torn, unstable region.
  • By 1995, the situation in the UN Safe Areas had deteriorated to the point of diplomatic crisis, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre, one of the worst atrocities to occur in Europe since World War II.
  • NATO became militarily involved in the conflict when its jets shot down four Serb aircraft in violation of the UN-mandated no-fly zone over central Bosnia on February 28, 1994.
  • UNPROFOR made its first request for NATO air support in March 1994, and by April, NATO began participating in air strikes to support safe areas on the ground, marking the first time NATO participated in this type of military maneuver.
  • Operation Deliberate Force was a sustained air campaign conducted by NATO in concert with UNPROFOR ground operations to undermine the military capability of the VRS. The air campaign was key in pressuring the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to take part in negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Agreement in November 1995.

Key Terms

  • Vance-Owen Peace Plan: A peace proposal negotiated with the leaders of Bosnia’s warring factions by UN Special Envoy Cyrus Vance and EC representative Lord Owen. This plan involved the division of Bosnia into ten semi-autonomous regions.

The United Nations and Bosnia

The UN repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to stop the Bosnian War, and the much-touted Vance-Owen Peace Plan in the first half of 1993 made little impact. On February 22, 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 808, which decided “that an international tribunal shall be established for the prosecution of persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law.” On May 15-16, 96% of Serbs voted to reject the Vance-Owen peace plan. After the failure of the plan, an armed conflict sprang up between Bosniaks and Croats over the 30% of Bosnia the latter held. The peace plan was one of the factors leading to the escalation of the conflict as Lord Owen avoided moderate Croat authorities (pro-unified Bosnia) and negotiated directly with more extreme elements who were in favor of separation.

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Sniper Alley: Norwegian UN troops on their way up Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, November 1995.

On May 25, 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formally established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council. In April 1993, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 816, calling on member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. On April 12, 1993, NATO commenced Operation Deny Flight to enforce this no-fly zone. In an attempt to protect civilians, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), which had been established during the Croatian War of Independence, saw its role further extended in May 1993 to protect areas declared as “safe havens” around Sarajevo, Goražde, Srebrenica, Tuzla, Žepa, and Bihać by Resolution 824. On June 4, 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 836, authorizing the use of force by UNPROFOR for the purpose of protecting the above-named safe zones.

United Nations Safe Zones

The establishment of the UN Safe Areas is considered one of the most controversial decisions of the United Nations. The resolutions establishing the safe areas were unclear about the procedure by which these areas were to be protected in the war zone that Bosnia and Herzegovina had become. The resolutions also created a difficult diplomatic situation for member states that voted in favor of it due to their unwillingness to take necessary steps to ensure the security of the safe areas. In 1995, the situation in the UN Safe Areas had deteriorated to the point of diplomatic crisis, culminating in the Srebrenica massacre, one of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. By the end of the war, every one of the Safe Areas had been attacked by the Serbs, and Srebrenica and Žepa were overrun.

Srebrenica

From the outset, violations of the safe area agreement in Srebrenica were abundant. Between 1,000 and 2,000 soldiers from three of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) Drina Corps Brigades were deployed around the enclave, equipped with tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and mortars. The 28th Mountain Division of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) that remained in the enclave was neither well-organized nor well-equipped. A firm command structure and communications system was lacking and some soldiers carried old hunting rifles or no weapons at all. Few had proper uniforms. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Karremans (the Dutchbat Commander with UNPROFOR) testified to the ICTY that his personnel were prevented from returning to the enclave by Serb forces and that equipment and ammunition were also barred. Bosniaks in Srebrenica complained of attacks by Serb soldiers, while to the Serbs it appeared that Bosnian government forces in Srebrenica were using the safe area as a convenient base from which to launch counter-offensives against the VRS, with UNPROFOR failing to take any preventive action. General Sefer Halilović admitted that ARBiH helicopters had flown in violation of the no-fly zone and that he had personally dispatched eight helicopters with ammunition for the 28th Division within the enclave.

A Security Council mission led by Diego Arria arrived in Srebrenica on April 25, 1993, and in their subsequent report to the UN, condemned the Serbs for perpetrating “a slow-motion process of genocide.” The mission then stated that:

“Serb forces must withdraw to points from which they cannot attack, harass or terrorise the town. UNPROFOR should be in a position to determine the related parameters. The mission believes, as does UNPROFOR, that the actual 4.5 km by 0.5 km decided as a safe area should be greatly expanded.”

Specific instructions from UN Headquarters in New York stated that UNPROFOR should not be too zealous in searching for Bosniak weapons and later, that the Serbs should withdraw their heavy weapons before the Bosniaks gave up their weapons. The Serbs never did withdraw their heavy weapons.

By early 1995, fewer and fewer supply convoys were making it through to the enclave. The situation in Srebrenica and in other enclaves had deteriorated into lawless violence as prostitution among young Muslim girls, theft, and black marketeering proliferated. The already meager resources of the civilian population dwindled further and even the UN forces started running dangerously low on food, medicine, ammunition, and fuel, eventually forced to patrol the enclave on foot. Dutchbat soldiers who went out of the area on leave were not allowed to return, and their numbers dropped from 600 to 400 men. In March and April, the Dutch soldiers noticed a build-up of Serb forces near two of their observation posts.

In March 1995, Radovan Karadžić, President of the Republika Srpska (RS), despite pressure from the international community to end the war and ongoing efforts to negotiate a peace agreement, issued a directive to the VRS concerning the long-term strategy of the VRS forces in the enclave. The directive, known as “Directive 7”, specified that the VRS was to completely separate Srebrenica from Žepa and make the situation within Srebrenica enclave unbearable by combat means, with the aim of ending the life of all Srebrenica’s inhabitants. By mid-1995, the humanitarian situation of the Bosniak civilians and military personnel in the enclave was catastrophic. In May, following orders, ARBiH Commander Naser Orić and his staff left the enclave by helicopter to Tuzla, leaving senior officers in command of the 28th Division. In late June and early July, the 28th Division issued a series of reports, including urgent pleas for the humanitarian corridor to the enclave to be reopened. When this failed, Bosniak civilians began dying from starvation. On July 7, the mayor of Srebrenica reported that eight residents had died of starvation.

The Serb offensive against Srebrenica began in earnest the day before, on July 6, 1995. In the following days, the five UNPROFOR observation posts in the southern part of the enclave fell one by one in the face of the Bosnian-Serb advance. Some of the Dutch soldiers retreated into the enclave after their posts were attacked, but the crews of the other observation posts surrendered into Serb custody. Simultaneously, the defending Bosnian forces came under heavy fire and were pushed back towards the town. Once the southern perimeter began to collapse, about 4,000 Bosniak residents who had been living in a Swedish housing complex for refugees nearby fled north into the town of Srebrenica. Dutch soldiers reported that the advancing Serbs were “cleansing” the houses in the southern part of the enclave.

Late on July 9, 1995, emboldened by early successes and little resistance from the largely demilitarized Bosniaks and the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, Karadžić issued a new order authorizing the 1,500-strong VRS Drina Corps to capture the town of Srebrenica. The following morning (July 10), Lieutenant-Colonel Karremans made urgent requests for air support from NATO to defend Srebrenica as crowds filled the streets, some carrying weapons. VRS tanks were approaching the town, and NATO airstrikes on these began on the afternoon of July 11, 1995. NATO bombers attempted to attack VRS artillery locations outside the town, but poor visibility forced NATO to cancel this operation. Further NATO air attacks were cancelled after the VRS threatened to bomb the UN’s Potočari compound, kill Dutch and French military hostages, and attack surrounding locations where 20,000 to 30,000 civilian refugees were situated. In the days that followed, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, would be killed by units of the VRS under the command of General Ratko Mladić.

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Srebrenica Massacre Victim: Skull of a victim of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre in an exhumed mass grave outside the village of Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 2007.

NATO Military Involvement

NATO became militarily involved in the conflict when its jets shot down four Serb aircraft in violation of the UN no-fly zone over central Bosnia on February 28, 1994. On March 12, 1994, the UNPROFOR made its first request for NATO air support, but close air support was not deployed as the approval process was delayed. On April 10-11, 1994, UNPROFOR called in NATO air strikes to protect the Goražde safe area, resulting in the bombing of a Serbian military command outpost near Goražde by 2 US F-16 jets. This was the first time in NATO’s history that it had participated in this type of military maneuver. As a result, 150 UN personnel were taken hostage on April 14, and on April 16, a British Sea Harrier was shot down over Goražde by Serb forces.

On August 5, at the request of UNPROFOR, NATO aircraft attacked a target within the Sarajevo Exclusion Zone after weapons were seized by Bosnian Serbs from a collection site near Sarajevo. On September 22, 1994, NATO aircraft carried out an air strike against a Bosnian Serb tank at the request of UNPROFOR.

Operation Deliberate Force

Operation Deliberate Force was a sustained air campaign conducted by NATO in concert with UNPROFOR ground operations to undermine the military capability of the VRS, which had threatened and attacked UN-designated safe areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. Events such as the Srebrenica and Markale massacres precipitated intervention. The operation was carried out between August 30 and September 20, 1995, involving 400 aircraft and 5,000 personnel from 15 nations. Commanded by Admiral Leighton W. Smith, the campaign struck 338 Bosnian Serb targets, many of which were destroyed. Overall, 1,026 bombs were dropped during the operation, 708 of which were precision-guided. The air campaign was key in pressuring the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to take part in negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Agreement reached in November 1995.

The Bosnian War

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, and Herzeg-Bosnia.

Learning Objectives

Explain the events of the Bosnian War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Following Slovenian and Croatian secession from the Socialist Federal Republic in 1991, the multi-ethnic Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence on February 29, 1992.
  • On March 18, 1992, representatives from the three major ethnic majorities signed the Lisbon Agreement, agreeing to an ethnic division of Bosnia: Alija Izetbegović for the Bosniaks, Radovan Karadžić for the Serbs, and Mate Boban for the Croats. However, on March 28, 1992, Izetbegović withdrew his signature and declared his opposition to any such division of the country.
  • Serb forces attacked Bosnian Muslim civilian populations, following the same pattern once areas were under their control: houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down, civilians were rounded up or captured, and many were beaten or killed in the process.
  • A number of genocidal massacres perpetrated against the Bosniak population were reported during the war, including Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Tuzla, and two incidents at Markale.
  • The Siege of Sarajevo started in early April 1992 and lasted 44 months, with suffering inflicted on the largely Bosniak civilian population to force Bosnian authorities to accept Serb demands.
  • The Graz agreement was signed between Bosnian-Serb and Bosnian-Croat leaders in early May 1992, causing deep divisions within the Croat community and strengthening Croat separatist factions, which led to their conflict with the Bosniaks.
  • Numerous ceasefire agreements were signed and breached as advantages were gained and lost across sides. The UN repeatedly attempted to stop the war, but the much-touted Vance-Owen Peace Plan made little impact.
  • On May 25, 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formally established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council.
  • The Croat-Bosniak war officially ended on February 23, 1994, when the commander of the Croat Defense Council (HVO), General Ante Roso, and commander of the Bosnian Army, General Rasim Delić, signed a ceasefire agreement in Zagreb, leading to the Washington Agreement being finalized shortly thereafter.
  • On September 26, 1995, an agreement of further basic principles for a peace accord was reached in New York City between the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. A 60-day ceasefire came into effect on October 12, and on November 1, peace talks began in Dayton, Ohio.

Key Terms

  • Split Agreement: The Split Agreement was a mutual defense agreement between Croatia, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, signed in Split, Croatia, on July 22, 1995. It called on the Croatian Army to intervene militarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  • Vance-Owen peace plan: A peace proposal negotiated between the leaders of Bosnia’s warring factions in early January 1993, facilitated by UN Special Envoy Cyrus Vance and European Community representative Lord Owen. The proposal involved the division of Bosnia into ten semi-autonomous regions and received the backing of the UN.

The Bosnian War was an international armed conflict that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. Following a number of violent incidents in early 1992, the war started in earnest on April 6, 1992, and ended on December 14, 1995. The main belligerents were the forces of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and those of the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, and Herzeg-Bosnia, who were led and supplied by Serbia and Croatia respectively. The war was part of the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Following the Slovenian and Croatian secession from the Socialist Federal Republic in 1991, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – which was inhabited by mainly Muslim Bosniaks (44%), as well as Orthodox Serbs (32.5%) and Catholic Croats (17%) – passed a referendum for independence on February 29, 1992. The turnout to the referendum was reported as 63.7%, with 92.7% in favor of independence (implying that Bosnian Serbs, who made up approximately 34% of the population, largely boycotted the referendum). Independence was formally declared by the Bosnian parliament on March 3, 1992. On March 18, 1992, representatives from the three major ethnic majorities signed the Lisbon Agreement: Alija Izetbegović for the Bosniaks, Radovan Karadžić for the Serbs, and Mate Boban for the Croats. However, on March 28, 1992, Izetbegović, after meeting with the then-U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann, in Sarajevo, withdrew his signature and declared his opposition to any type ofethnic division of Bosnia.

In late March 1992, fighting between Serbs and combined Croat and Bosniak forces in and near Bosanski Brod resulted in the killing of Serb villagers in Sijekovac. Serb paramilitaries committed the Bijeljina massacre, most victims of which were Bosniak, on April 1-2, 1992.

Course of the War

At the outset of the Bosnian war, Serb forces attacked the Bosnian Muslim civilian population in eastern Bosnia. Once towns and villages were securely in their hands, the Serb forces, including military, police, paramilitaries, and sometimes even Serb villagers, followed the same pattern: houses and apartments were systematically ransacked or burnt down, civilians were rounded up or captured, and many were beaten or killed in the process. Men and women were separated when captured, with many men massacred or detained in camps. Women and children were kept in detention centers that were intolerably unhygienic. Many were mistreated and raped repeatedly. The Serbs had the upper hand due to their possession of heavier weaponry (although they claimed less manpower than the Bosnians). They were supplied by the Yugoslav People’s Army and usually established control over areas where Serbs were already in the majority.

The Siege of Sarajevo started in early April 1992. The capital Sarajevo was mostly held by Bosniaks. In the 44 months of the siege, terror against Sarajevo residents varied in intensity, but the purpose remained the same: inflict suffering on civilians to force the Bosnian authorities to accept Serb demands. The Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) surrounded the city for nearly four years, deploying troops and artillery in the surrounding hills in what would become the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.

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Funeral in Sarajevo, 1992: A family mourns during a funeral at the Lion’s cemetery during the Siege of Sarajevo.

The Graz agreement was signed between the Bosnian-Serb and Bosnian-Croat leaders in early May 1992, causing deep divisions within the Croat community and strengthening separatist factions, which led to conflict with the Bosniaks. One of the primary pro-union Croat leaders was Blaž Kraljević, leader of the Croatian Defence Forces (HOS), which had a Croatian nationalist agenda but unlike the Croat Defense Council (HVO), fully supported cooperation with the Bosniaks. In June 1992, focus switched to the towns of Novi Travnik and Gornji Vakuf, where HVO efforts to gain control were resisted. On June 18, 1992, the Bosnian Territorial Defence in Novi Travnik received an ultimatum from HVO that included demands to abolish existing Bosnia and Herzegovina institutions within the town and submit to the authority of HVO and the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia, as well as expel all Muslim refugees. These demands were to be met within 24 hours. The next day, as demands were not met, an attack was launched. The town’s elementary school and post office were attacked and damaged.

Vastly under-equipped Bosnian forces fighting on two fronts were able to repel Croats and gain territory. Bosnia was surrounded by Croat and Serb forces from all sides with no way to import weapons or food. What saved Bosnia at this time was its vast heavy industrial complex, which was able to switch to military hardware production. Numerous ceasefire agreements were signed and breached as advantages were gained and lost across sides. The UN repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to stop the war, and the much-touted Vance-Owen Peace Plan in the first half of 1993 made little impact. On February 22, 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 808, which decided “that an international tribunal shall be established for the prosecution of persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law.” On May 15-16, 96% of Serbs voted to reject the Vance-Owen peace plan. After the failure of the plan, an armed conflict sprang up between Bosniaks and Croats over the 30 percent of Bosnia the latter held. The peace plan was one of the factors leading to the escalation of the conflict as Lord Owen avoided moderate Croat authorities (pro-unified Bosnia) and negotiated directly with more extreme elements who were in favor of separation.

On May 25, 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formally established by Resolution 827 of the United Nations Security Council. In April 1993, the United Nations Security Council issued Resolution 816, calling on member states to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina. On April 12, 1993, NATO commenced Operation Deny Flight to enforce this no-fly zone. In an attempt to protect civilians, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), established during the Croatian War of Independence, saw its role further extended in May 1993 to protect areas declared as “safe havens” around Sarajevo, Goražde, Srebrenica, Tuzla, Žepa, and Bihać by Resolution 824. On June 4, 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 836, authorizing the use of force by UNPROFOR to protect the above-named safe zones.

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Sniper Alley in Sarajevo: Norwegian UN troops on their way up Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, November 1995.

The Croat-Bosniak war officially ended on February 23, 1994, when the commander of HVO, General Ante Roso, and commander of the Bosnian Army, General Rasim Delić, signed a ceasefire agreement in Zagreb. On March 18, 1994, a peace agreement — the Washington Agreement — was mediated by the U.S. between the warring Croats (represented by the Republic of Croatia) and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was signed in both Washington D.C. and Vienna. The Washington Agreement ended the war between Croats and Bosniaks and divided the combined territory held by Croat and Bosnian government forces into ten autonomous cantons, establishing the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This reduced the warring parties to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, militarily composed of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) and the HVO, and Republika Srpska, composed militarily of the VRS.

The war continued until November 1995. In July 1995, VRS forces under General Ratko Mladić occupied the UN safe area of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. The resulting Srebrenica massacre led to the murder of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica. UNPROFOR, represented on the ground at Srebrenica by a 400-strong contingent of Dutch peacekeepers, failed to prevent the town’s capture and the subsequent massacre. The ICTY ruled this event a genocide in the Krstić case.

In line with the Croat-Bosniak Split Agreement, Croatian forces operated in western Bosnia under Operation Summer ’95 and in early August launched Operation Storm, aimed at taking over the Republic of Serb Krajina in Croatia. With this, the Bosniak-Croat alliance gained winning momentum in the war, taking much of western Bosnia from the VRS in several operations, including Operation Mistral 2 and Operation Sana. VRS forces committed several major massacres during 1995: the Tuzla massacre on May 25, the Srebrenica massacre, and the second Markale massacre on August 28 (the first Markale massacre occurred on February 5, 1994, when a 120-millimeter mortar shell landed in the center of a marketplace in Sarajevo). On August 30, the Secretary General of NATO announced the start of Operation Deliberate Force, which consisted of widespread airstrikes against Bosnian Serb positions supported by UNPROFOR rapid reaction force artillery attacks. On September 14, 1995, NATO air strikes were suspended to allow the implementation of an agreement with Bosnian Serbs for the withdrawal of heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.

Twelve days later, on September 26, an agreement of further basic principles for a peace accord was reached in New York City between the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. A 60-day ceasefire came into effect on October 12, and on November 1, peace talks began in Dayton, Ohio. The war ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement signed on November 21, 1995; the final version of the peace agreement was signed December 14, 1995, in Paris.

Prosecution in the International Criminal Court

A number of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks were prosecuted following the Bosnian War, and some trials are still ongoing.

Learning Objectives

Detail the cases brought before the ICC for crimes perpetrated during the Bosnian War

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in 1993 as a body within the UN tasked with prosecuting war crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
  • The former president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadžić, was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment on March 24, 2016.
  • Ratko Mladić, the top military general with command responsibility in the Army of Republika Srpska, is currently on trial by the ICTY, charged with crimes in connection with the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, following a long period in hiding as he attempted to evade arrest.
  • Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was charged with war crimes in connection with the war in Bosnia, including grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, crimes against humanity, and genocide; however, he died in 2006 before his trial ended.
  • Paramilitary leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted in a first-instance verdict on all counts of an alleged joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina of non-Serbs by the ICTY on March 31, 2016. He went on to lead the Serbian Radical Party to legislative victories in early 2016.
  • The Hague revealed that Alija Izetbegović, President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War, had also been under investigation for war crimes, although the prosecutor did not find sufficient evidence over the course of Izetbegović’s lifetime to issue an indictment.
  • Many Serbs have accused Sarajevo authorities of practicing selective justice in the active prosecution of Serbs for war crimes, while similar acts carried out by Bosniaks have been ignored or downplayed.

Key Terms

  • joint criminal enterprise: A legal doctrine used by the ICTY to prosecute political and military leaders for mass war crimes, including genocide, committed during the Yugoslav Wars.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in 1993 as a body within the UN tasked with prosecuting war crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal is an ad hoc court located in The Hague, Netherlands. Both Serbs and Croats were indicted and convicted of systematic war crimes under the principle of joint criminal enterprise, while Bosniaks were indicted and convicted of individual ones. Most of the Bosnian-Serb wartime leadership, such as Biljana Plavšić, Momčilo Krajišnik, Radoslav Brđanin, and Duško Tadić, were indicted and judged guilty for war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Major ICTY Cases

Photograph of Radovan Karadžić

Radovan Karadžić

Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment on March 24, 2016.

The former president of Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment on March 24, 2016. He was found guilty of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre, which aimed to kill “every able-bodied male” and systematically exterminate the Bosnian Muslim community. He was also convicted of persecution, extermination, deportation, forcible transfer (ethnic cleansing), and murder in connection with his campaign to drive Bosnian Muslims and Croats out of villages claimed by Serb forces. Ratko Mladić, the top military general with command responsibility in the Army of Republika Srpska, is currently on trial in the ICTY, charged with crimes in connection with the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, following a long period in hiding as he attempted to evade arrest. The closing arguments for his case were conducted in December 2016 and a verdict is forthcoming. Prosecutors have argued for nothing less than a life sentence, citing the dissatisfaction of Bosnians when Karadžić was only given a 40-year sentence.

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Ratko Mladić

General Ratko Mladić during UN-mediated talks at Sarajevo Airport in 1993.

The Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was charged with war crimes in connection with the war in Bosnia, including grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, crimes against humanity, and genocide; however, he died in 2006 before his trial could finish. Milošević was arrested by Yugoslav federal authorities on March 31, 2001, on suspicion of corruption, abuse of power, and embezzlement following his resignation of the Yugoslav presidency and a disputed presidential election. The initial investigation into Milošević faltered for lack of evidence, prompting the Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić to extradite him to the ICTY to stand trial for charges of war crimes instead. At the outset of the trial, Milošević denounced the Tribunal as illegal because it had not been established with the consent of the UN General Assembly. As a result, he refused to appoint counsel for his defense and chose to defend himself in the five years that the trial progressed prior to his death.

Paramilitary leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted in a first-instance verdict on all counts of an alleged joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse large areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina of non-Serbs by the ICTY on March 31, 2016. The acquittal was appealed by prosecutors from the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), a United Nations Security Council agency that functions as an overseer and successor to the ICTY. Subsequently, Šešelj led the Serbian Radical Party in the 2016 elections, and his party won 23 seats in the parliament.

The Hague revealed that Alija Izetbegović, President of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War, was also under investigation for war crimes, although the prosecutor did not find sufficient evidence over the course of Izetbegović’s lifetime to issue an indictment. Other Bosniaks convicted of or on trial for war crimes include Rasim Delić, chief of staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on September 15, 2008, for his failure to prevent the Bosnian mujahideen members of the Bosnian army from committing crimes, including murder, rape, and torture, against captured civilians and enemy combatants. Enver Hadžihasanović, a general of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was sentenced to 3.5 years for authority over acts of murder and wanton destruction in Central Bosnia. Hazim Delić was the Bosniak Deputy Commander of the Čelebići prison camp, which detained Serb civilians. He was sentenced to 18 years by the ICTY Appeals Chamber on April 8, 2003, for murder and torture of the prisoners and the rape of two Serbian women.

Many Serbs have accused Sarajevo authorities of practicing selective justice in the active prosecution of Serbs for war crimes, while similar acts carried out by Bosniaks have been ignored or downplayed. Genocide at Srebrenica is the most serious war crime that any Serbs have been convicted of at the ICTY. Crimes against humanity (i.e., ethnic cleansing), a charge second in gravity only to genocide, is the most serious war crime that any Croat has been convicted of. The most serious war crime a Bosniak has been charged with at the Tribunal is breach of the Geneva Conventions.