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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 *

Country context

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was a struggle among the country’s three communities for territorial control. In four years, the war claimed some 200,000 lives and - at its worst point - uprooted half the population of 4 million. Its terrible violence and the slaughter of civilians caught the attention of the international community. Fear of instability in the Balkans prompted the Western powers to intervene and, eventually, to apply the force necessary to find a tenuous peace.

The loose federation of republics that constituted Tito’s Yugoslavia began to fracture during the 1980s, as uneven economic development and nationalist rivalry fuelled long-standing tensions. In the summer of 1991, the leaders of Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. The Serb-dominated federal army intervened to challenge their secession, but swift recognition of their independence by the European Union (EU) undermined the federation government’s efforts to reverse the situation.

With borders in the region redrawn, the battleground shifted to Bosnia. Still a member of the federation, Bosnia was ethnically made up of Muslims (43 per cent), Croats (18 per cent) and Serbs (39 per cent). The Muslim/Croat communities were unwilling to remain in a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.

Early in 1992, the EU supervised a referendum in Bosnia-Herzegovina on whether the territory should become an independent country, in which the three communities could co-exist. The Serbs boycotted the referendum, and Muslims and Croats voted overwhelmingly for separation.

Bosnia was recognized as a separate State by other European countries and the United States in April 1992. Bosnian Muslims immediately came under siege from militias based in Serbia and Croatia. Reports of massacres, wholesale assaults on women, and concentration camps reminiscent of World War II came to characterize an increasingly bloody conflict. United Nations (UN) negotiators struggled fruitlessly to bring the three sides to an agreement. In 1994, Muslims and Croats agreed to work together to establish a federation, although this did not end clashes between their forces.

NATO intervened, imposing a “no fly zone” over Bosnia and establishing “safe areas”, which would be defended by United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and air power if attacked. Events of 1995, however, highlighted the reality of “safe areas”. When Sarajevo came under sustained shelling by the Serbs in May, NATO failed to respond. Two months later, in one of the worst massacres of the war, 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in the town of Srebrenica. Over the following weeks joint Bosnian-Croat and Bosniac units retook a large swathe of territory, uprooting more than 100,000 Serbs from their homes. NATO began to bomb Serb gun positions across Bosnia.

As Croats and Muslims swept across Bosnia, pressure mounted on the Bosnian Serbs to negotiate. In late 1995 NATO and the UN were able to broker a cease-fire and in November the Dayton Agreement was signed. Under them, Bosnia-Herzegovina was defined as a State with two separate entities: a Muslim-Croat federation given 51 per cent of the territory, and a Serb entity with the remaining 49 per cent. NATO troops under a UN mandate (IFOR) were dispatched to patrol the dividing line.

NATO-led peacekeepers (SFOR) remain in Bosnia-Herzegovina today and it is unclear whether the fragile peace will endure without the continued presence of international troops. Meanwhile, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina are struggling, with the aid of the international community, to build a new nation.