Cover Image
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 *

The meaning of norms

What is so striking about the war is the vast disjunction between the norms on the limits of war and the reality of the conflict. Nearly three-quarters of those consulted in Bosnia-Herzegovina (73 per cent) volunteered at the outset of interviews that soldiers should not be allowed to do certain things when fighting their enemy. Actions they believe should be prohibited include: killing civilians (32 per cent); attacking civilians, including rape, robbing or beatings (26 per cent); and destroying or burning homes and buildings (24 per cent).

In the in-depth interviews, people spoke without much hesitation of what should not be allowed in war, almost as if nothing had occurred during the conflict that violated the limits.

They should leave innocent civilians out. (IDI, family member of missing person, Gorazde)

They should not kill civilians, torture prisoners. (IDI, student, West Mostar)

I think killing civilians off the front lines is a terrible war crime. (IDI, ex-soldier, Bijeljina)

They should not torture civilians or terrorize anybody... Civilians are not guilty of anything. (IDI, displaced person, Prijedor)

Because the war is when a soldier fights a soldier, not women and children. (IDI, university student, Sarajevo)

I have participated in this war. There should be two lines: at the first line there are soldiers who fight, and at the second line, there are civilians. I think civilians should not be molested or attacked. They are just civilians and should be left out of it. (IDI, ex-soldier, Banja Luka)

These prohibitions or limits in war are the basis of a norm that, if anything, has been reinforced by the war experience. Over three-quarters (76 per cent) of the population say the limits should be observed, not because failure to do so might lead to future problems, but simply because such violations are “wrong”.

The people who see the limits as normative say attacks on civilians are wrong primarily because they are “against human rights” (57 per cent). Many fewer root the norm in a personal code (27 per cent), in law (24 per cent) or religion (19 per cent). 9 (See Figure 3.)

9 The main concern of the minority who focus on the problems caused by assaults on civilians (22 per cent) is that they generate too much hate and division (56 per cent). A smaller number believe such attacks cause too much psychological damage (28 per cent). Even against the backdrop of so much physical war damage, just 3 per cent say attacks on civilians produce too much destruction.

Throughout the focus group discussions and in-depth interviews, respondents keep coming back to the concept of “humanness”, an idea that differentiates people from animals and a civilized society from an uncivilized one. Those who violate this concept - by taking certain actions or going beyond the limits - stand in danger of losing their humanity. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, people draw upon a presumed common understanding of what is right and wrong to remind themselves of the limits they share.

FIGURE 3. Basis for the norm (per cent of population responding “it’s wrong”)

In the statements below, people use the word “human” to establish what should and should not be done:

Well, there is the sense of humanness... A person goes to war with full awareness. So, he is aware of his actions and should behave accordingly, rather than get out of control. (FG, ex-soldiers, Banja Luka)

It breaks human rules - and the Geneva Conventions. But if a man is not human, there are no conventions he would obey. (IDI, displaced person, Tuzla)

I do not know of any law, but it is evidently a human rule... Basically, human dignity is a stronger rule than any written one. (IDI, ex-soldier, Bijeljina)

We might use those prisoners for exchange. It is not human to kill. (IDI, university student, Sarajevo)

Because there is no bigger value on earth than the life of a man. Never mind his age - young or old. I think there is nothing more valuable than human life. (IDI, university student, Trebinje)

If somebody killed my child, I would not guarantee my behaviour. I just hope I would be human. (IDI, woman invalid, Sarajevo)

I learned that the human being has the biggest value of all. Therefore, I think it has to be protected. (IDI, woman invalid, Sarajevo)

Because of war, I have to fight, but my fighting will remain within the boundaries of what does not violate human decency. (FG, ex-soldiers, Banja Luka)

Humanness, for many people, is more than just an idea, however, and the terms “human” and “not human” are more than just adjectives. They are what keep people from slipping into the behaviour of a lesser civilization, especially during war.

My personal opinion is that we are not cattle, and a normal person wouldn’t treat even cattle like that. (IDI, women, Banja Luka)

I know prisoners should be treated as human beings and not as animals. (IDI, university student, Sarajevo)

Because it breaks the rules of civilized behaviour. [Does that break any rules?] 10 Of course, moral rules, ethical rules that have been made to develop the human race. And it is not human to torture a human being. (IDI, woman invalid, Sarajevo)

10 Words in square brackets indicate a moderator question or a clarification by the author.

I am speaking as an active participant in the war. Anyone on the opposite side is a potential enemy. Naturally, one has to act in accordance with this. There is the animal side in every one of us. Man is some kind of social animal, and it is up to everyone to fight for himself against it, to prevent himself from inflicting evil on any one, even in war. (FG, journalists, Banja Luka)

[Killing a captured combatant who killed somebody close to you.] God forbid! I think that we are not on the level of such savages. (FG, journalists, Banja Luka)

That is absurd. We are not on such a savage level. (FG, journalists, Banja Luka)

I don’t want to be identical. We would be the same then. And one of the battles we fought in this war was a battle to stay human. (FG, family members of the missing, Sarajevo)

That humanness is at the centre of a norm becomes clear when people were asked if anything “positive” had happened to them during the war. Their first reactions were usually to scorn the very idea of it. Some soldiers spoke of the solidarity and bonds forged with fellow soldiers; some civilians spoke of people helping each other; others spoke of the “nationalist cohesion that has overwhelmed us and led us for four years”. (FG, journalists, Banja Luka) Interestingly, people more often reached for examples that ran counter to what would normally be expected in war - helping someone from the other side, suspending the notion of enemy and acting with humanity. By so doing, they seem to affirm for themselves that people had sometimes chosen to accept the limits in war - and that human dignity and decency are not inevitable casualties of war.

[We] must all admit that there were persons who showed their goodness in the war, regardless of their nationality, who helped and who could help. But there were also evil people. (FG, mothers, Banja Luka)

One has to retain one’s dignity, regardless of what the enemy side does. (FG, widows, Banja Luka)

Refugees from Travnik, Croats who were fleeing from Muslims, passed through Banja Luka, and they were helped here, although they were from the enemy side. They were given all the help they needed. (FG, mothers, Banja Luka)

I remember some situations when people proved themselves to be true human beings. And I think those were individual cases, when a person had the possibility to give something to prisoners, e.g., cigarettes, or to people in work squads - and that was a victory over every human’s animal side. (FG, journalists, Banja Luka)

[After speaking about saving prisoners.] I really saved them... I met them once more and the kids remembered me. That was something very human. Not big, but human. (FG, journalists, Mostar)

I reported a lot of compassion... Some unknown people gave me shelter and fed me. I have an example of a Serb helping me to get out of Glamoc. (FG, journalists, West Mostar)

It was a positive thing to treat them as humans. We just could not let them go. We fed them better. (FG, soldiers, West Mostar)

I am very proud of my father. There was only one Serb house in my village. They were old people, and my father protected them... (FG, widows, Mostar)

A positive thing was that one family was saved. (FG, mothers, West Mostar)

I have been in the camp for four years, and I would not have made it were it not for a Serb woman who kept helping me. She fed me. I would like to stop the war, even for the Serbs, because all of them are not evil. I visited that woman today, though many Muslims find it wrong. But I feel gratitude. (FG, mothers, Sarajevo)

Affirming that one can act as a human says that one can live by the norm and do what is right in times of war.