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close this bookCountry Report Bosnia - Herzegovina - ICRC Worldwide Consultation on the Rules of War (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1999, 56 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAbout the People on War Project
View the documentCountry context
View the documentCountry methodology
View the documentExecutive summary
View the documentThe war experience
View the documentThe meaning of norms
Open this folder and view contentsAttacking non-combatants
Open this folder and view contentsExplaining the war on civilians
Open this folder and view contentsInternationalization of the war
View the documentAnnex 1: General methodology
View the documentAnnex 2: Questionnaire *

Executive summary

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a special prominence in the ICRC’s consultation on the rules of war and international humanitarian law. Perhaps as in no other armed conflict in the post-World War II period, the spotlight has focused on the breakdown of the rules that are intended to protect civilians from the ravages of war. No doubt more civilians were killed or uprooted during the violent conflicts in Rwanda, Afghanistan and Angola than were in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the pursuit of “war criminals”, the trials in The Hague, the press attention to “ethnic cleansing”, and the intensive involvement of the international community in Europe’s backyard have all made Bosnia-Herzegovina a special case. For many, it is here that the Geneva Conventions faced and likely failed their toughest test - failing to impose on the combatants limits that would have protected millions of civilians across the Balkans from the full impact of the war.

The high-profile breakdown of the rules of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is all the more striking because both combatants and civilians are highly aware of the Geneva Conventions and fully supportive of norms that protect civilians in war. The limits did not give way because the Conventions or the norms were unknown or foreign to the participants. They broke down under the pressure of nationalist passions and hatred. They also broke down because a range of other wartime considerations diminished and superceded them. The rules of war have not been repudiated in the minds of those who have experienced this conflict. They were overwhelmed in large part by the rules on the ground, which created powerful exceptions, amendments or suspensions whereby millions of civilians joined the front lines.

The conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the most internationalized in the world. It may not have begun that way, but the participants now view the international community with its various treaties as active players in the war and in their future. When asked whether there is anything that combatants should not be allowed to do, nearly everyone interviewed - whether family members of the missing or journalists in the focus groups, displaced people or soldiers during in-depth interviews - almost immediately cite international conventions. According to the survey, four out of five ordinary citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina are familiar with the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions are not the only basis for the limits in war - indeed, strong norms operate on all sides - but the internationalization of the conflict is a powerful ingredient in the war. The international community became a party to the conflict itself and the Geneva Conventions helped shape attitudes and behaviour inside and outside the theatre of war.

The main findings of the consultation are presented below:

Mobilized for war. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina involved the whole of society and left its mark on nearly everyone who lives there. More than 60 per cent of the population, according to the survey, lived in areas where the war took place, nearly half of whom were forced to move during it. The war mobilized the whole of society: according to the ICRC survey, three-quarters of the population supported a side. Fully 29 per cent participated as soldiers, carrying a gun.

The war’s toll. The violence of this war took a heavy toll: 53 per cent lost contact with family members; 44 per cent were forced to leave their homes and live elsewhere. A sizeable portion of the population experienced the war in its most direct forms: 14 per cent came under enemy control. Nearly a third of the soldiers (29 per cent) report being wounded in the conflict and almost one in ten (9 per cent) were imprisoned.

· For the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the dominant words describing the war experience are “horrible” (72 per cent) and “hateful” (44 per cent). Nationalist sentiment, hatred and the need for reciprocity greatly contributed to the civilian toll in this war.

· The war enveloped all the communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A third of both Serbs and Bosniacs (31 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively) say a close family member was killed. The Serbs report the highest incidence of being forced to leave their homes (54 per cent).3 A near majority (45 per cent) of Croats lost contact with a close relative; more than a third (36 per cent) were forced to leave home; and 18 per cent report the death of a close family member.

3 Although this question was asked in the context of the war in Bosnia, it is likely that the percentages given also reflect people’s experiences resulting from the armed conflicts in other republics of the former Yugoslavia and the impact of the Dayton Agreement.

· The Bosniac community experienced the highest level of injuries related directly to the war: 18 per cent of the total Bosniac population were wounded in the fighting, 10 per cent were imprisoned, 7 per cent were tortured and 5 per cent know somebody who was raped. In each instance, the percentage was two or three times that for the other communities.

· In important respects - serious damage to property (including looting), loss of family members and being forced to leave home - combatants and civilians experienced the war with similar intensity.

The role of norms. What is so striking about this war is the vast disjunction between norms and practices.

· Nearly three-quarters of those consulted (73 per cent) volunteered that soldiers should not be allowed to do certain things in fighting their enemy.

· Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of the people say these limits should be observed, not because failure to do so may lead to future problems, but simply because they are “wrong”. Those who see the limits as normative say attacks on civilians are wrong primarily because they are “against human rights” (57 per cent). Throughout the in-depth research, people talked about a concept of “humanness” and being differentiated from animals.

Attacking non-combatants. Despite widespread acceptance of these norms, significant minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina indicate openness to attacks on civilians, if they would weaken the enemy.

· A considerable number - 17 per cent - say it is acceptable to attack civilians who voluntarily give food and shelter to enemy combatants - a situation which could only be seen as “normal” in this war.

· About a third of the public here accept as “part of war” (and not “wrong”) military initiatives that target civilian populations in order to weaken the enemy overall: 32 per cent accept depriving the civilian population of food, medicine, water or electricity.

· There is broad acceptance of landmines in Bosnia-Herzegovina: 40 per cent say it is acceptable to plant them to stop the movement of enemy combatants, even though civilians may step on them accidentally.

The soldiers, many of the families of the missing, and journalists take it for granted that this war was about civilians. Few defend or describe the killing or torture of civilians, but many describe the primary methods of warfare as including intimidation or expulsion of civilian populations, practices that often lead to atrocities on the ground.

Explaining the war on civilians. The most important aspect of this consultation is the explanation of why there is such a vast gap between the norms that limit wartime behaviour and practices on the ground. This section highlights the report’s main findings.

· When asked why combatants would harm civilians, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina point to hatred of the other side (28 per cent), a sentiment that leads people to lose all sense during war (25 per cent), exacerbated by the belief that the other side is doing the same thing (31 per cent). In effect, people say the limits disintegrated because of the intense nationalist sentiment, as expressed in war.

· The soldiers are the starting point, according to the in-depth research. In all three communities, they are defined as “our soldiers”, the real soldiers who defended the community from the “aggressors”. Across all communities, people say their soldiers were required to do whatever was necessary to save their communities. If it concerns their own soldiers, people are much more willing to relax or suspend the limits in war.

· From the survey, it becomes apparent how serious the implications of “sidedness” are for international humanitarian law. Those who support a side in this conflict - in Bosnia-Herzegovina, more than three in four people - are much more likely than those who do not to accept attacks on non-combatants.

· The people see this as a war that unites civilians and soldiers in defence of their communities. This view creates a conceptual legitimacy for the idea that civilians and combatants are joined in the same fight - whether they are defending their community under attack or trying to force the surrender or expulsion of a community. In either case, civilians and soldiers are united.

· Many people describe “non-normal” people - psychopaths, extreme nationalists (sometimes young and immature) who, full of hate, were driven to excess in the context of this war.

· In Bosnia-Herzegovina, those who have experienced the war most intensely are the most willing to see the status of non-combatants compromised. The war is an embittering experience that has increased the threat to international humanitarian law.

Internationalization of the war. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been internationalized. People see international forces as playing a major, even predominant, role in the conflict and in the country’s future. International institutions - from the ICRC and UNHCR to the UN, NATO, UNPROFOR, IFOR, SFOR - are considered to be as much a part of recent history as the various governments and armies.

· The Geneva Conventions are widely recognized in Bosnia-Herzegovina: 80 per cent of those surveyed have heard of them, of whom 89 per cent can offer a roughly accurate account of their meaning.

· Knowledge of the Geneva Conventions declines when the central challenge - the war on civilians - is addressed: 61 per cent say there are laws barring soldiers from attacking the enemy in populated villages and towns. One in four say there are no laws that prohibit such attacks on civilians.

· All the communities accept that some rules are so important that, if broken, the violators should be punished (82 per cent). Support for war-crimes prosecution is strongest among the Bosniacs (91 per cent), but over 70 per cent of Croats and Serbs are also in favour.

· The ICRC or the Red Cross is known by nearly everyone in this war zone: 91 per cent could correctly identify the red cross on a white background. The ICRC/Red Cross is seen as an institution that, in the first instance, protects vulnerable groups such as women, children, the elderly and sick (43 per cent). However, many think the organization protects all people in trouble (24 per cent); 18 per cent associate it with protecting prisoners and the wounded; 11 per cent see it as protecting hospitals and medical institutions and workers.

· People think the UN played the biggest role during the war in trying to stop attacks on civilian populations (56 per cent).

· People are ambivalent about the role of the international community in the war: significant numbers (42 per cent) say UNPROFOR made things better for civilians during the war; 39 per cent say it made things better for them personally. Only about 13 per cent say UNPROFOR made things worse, but 40 per cent say it made no difference either for civilians or themselves.

· While over half of those surveyed say that “safe areas” are a good idea (52 per cent think they are a good idea compared with 36 per cent who think they are a bad idea), people are more cautious about their impact on civilians’ welfare. Only 38 per cent say that they made things better, 20 per cent that they made things worse and fully 33 per cent that they made no difference.

· Serb respondents expressed deep cynicism about the role of the international community. For many of the Serbs and Croats consulted, the “safe areas” symbolized the international community’s partiality.

Across all communities, people say the international community ended the war when it chose to intervene. This belief helped create among the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina a sense that they were powerless to control their own destinies.