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International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights & the Bosnian War


The international arena is defined by norms that govern the manner in which both state and non-state actors perform. The seeming everyday ubiquity of such norms, though, can make them quite difficult to define. One of these concepts is international human rights, often touted yet rarely fully defined, which governs how politicians form policies, craft rhetoric, and engage in diplomacy with other states. This International Human Rights Law 101 series helps to provide the reader several useful historical and contemporary definitions to better understand the concept, along with several tools of analysis to examine modern case studies. Therefore, this 101 series is comprised of seven different articles which help to contextualize international human rights and the laws it governs, in both a historical and contemporary context.

The International Human Rights Law 101 series is therefore divided into six parts:

1. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Human Rights Law?

2. International Human Rights Law 101: What is International Humanitarian Law?

3. International Human Rights Law 101: The United Nations

4. International Human Rights Law 101: The International Court of Justice

5. International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights & the Bosnian War

6. International Human Rights Law 101: A Way Forward and Conclusions

International Human Rights Law 101: Human Rights & the Bosnian War

The post-war period of international relations marked a particular optimism in world leadership. To ensure that the genocide and carnage of the Second World War would never happen again, international organizations such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice were established. These organizations helped to codify certain inalienable rights, such as freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, in their documents. Despite this, the latter half of the twentieth century was home to a number of broader human rights violations in conflict with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, the fifth article in this International Human Rights Law 101 series explores watershed moments in human rights from the past century, discussing how the actions of the Bosnian Civil War directly violate inherent human rights and the international legal response to the atrocity. First, a brief explanation of the concept of war crimes is necessary to provide context for the atrocities committed during the Bosnian Civil War.

Figure 1: Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1949.

The concept of war crimes dates back to the late 19th century, specifically with the adoption of the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907, which helped codify international humanitarian law into practice (United Nations, n.d.). Although no formal document codifies all human rights violations into international law exists, various conventions, such as the Geneva Conventions, provide a general framework for states to follow (United Nations, n.d.). The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court offers a broad overview of the various actions which constitute war crimes, including breaches of the Geneva Conventions and other customary frameworks applicable in international armed conflicts. These include actions such as intentionally targeting civilians and humanitarian convoys, along with employing sexual violence and both chemical and biological weapons as a tool of war (Rome Statute, 1998). Broadly, these actions can further be categorized into "war crimes against persons requiring particular protection; war crimes against those providing humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping operations; war crimes against property; [and] prohibited methods... [and] means of warfare" (United Nations, n.d.). More specifically, this article is concerned with violations of international humanitarian law in the Bosnian War, specifically targeting Bosniak civilians, the specialized use of sexual violence against civilians, and the intentional deprivation of supplies as a starvation method.

Figure 2: A photograph of the drafters of the Geneva Conventions collaborating, Cadoux.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the-then Socialist Republic of Bosnia called for an independence referendum to establish its own state in 1992. Due to the multi-ethnic heterogeneity of the Soviet Union, Bosnia and Herzegovina was majority composed of Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs. Following the declaration of independence, Bosnian Serbs attempted to secure territory across the state, leading to outright war and deliberate ethnic cleansing. Various theories abound regarding the importance of ethnicity in Bosnia’s Civil War, with both macro-level explanations of desires to create ethnically homogenous territories within the state and micro-level theories of local inter-ethnic tensions between Muslim Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs (Weidmann, 2011). Regardless, the conflict would soon be defined by mass sexual violence, ethnic cleansing, and civilian casualties, with an estimated 100,000 dead (BBC, 2007).

Figure 3: Civilians endured frequent Serb shelling and sniper fire from the hills, 1992.

It has been evaluated that ethnic heterogeneity played a vital role in the extreme violence which characterized the conflict. Specifically, ethnic polarization creates incentives to commit violence, providing a reason to consolidate territory and create ethnically homogenous areas through the systematic eradication of the “other” (Costalli and Moro, 2012). As the war continues to rage through time, ethnic polarization gives way to a desire to consolidate larger stretches of territory. As a result, systematized ethnic cleansing occurs as the aggressor specifically targets civilians and combatants of a certain ethnic background and within a specific geographical area, most often towns and cities on the frontlines of the conflict. This can be seen in the manner in which secessionist Bosnian Serbs “began an aggressive program of ethnic cleansing of non-Serb populations (targeting both Muslims and Croats) aimed at creating a contiguous mono-ethnic territory that was exclusively Serb in character” (Walasek, 2020, p. 225). As a result, 65% of those killed were Bosnian Muslims (BBC, 2007). However, ethnic cleansing occupies more dimensions than killing and has since been recognized as a motive behind mass sexual violence during times of conflict.

Rape, as a weapon of war, gained widespread notoriety as a human rights violation due to the conflict. Instead of being conceptualized as an act perpetrated by a few rogue soldiers, the Bosnian War marked a profound shift in how sexual violence was now viewed as a deliberate strategy. Though the numbers vary, it is believed that anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 women, mostly of Bosnian descent, were systematically raped (Crowe, 2013). Evidence suggests that the establishment of systematized “rape camps,” in which women were mass sexually assaulted and impregnated, served as a manner of engendering war (Salzman, 1998). In this way, female bodies were effectively used as weapons of war to plummet morale and inflict more violence upon a specific portion of the population.

Figure 4: Miss Sarajevo beauty contest held in the besieged city to publicise the war, Lowe, 1992

Beyond systematized acts of violence in the form of rape and physical conflict, a large portion of the conflict can be defined by the deliberate act of mass starvation. Civilians concentrated in a specific area, most notably during the Siege of Sarajevo, were deliberately subjected to forms of mass starvation and food insecurity as a result of military blockades and constant violence (Slavkova, 2019). Additionally, the destabilization of food production systems led to shortages of critical supplies, such as food, water, and medicine (Collingham, 2012; Redzic, 2010). Acute hunger and undernourishment became widespread due to inadequate access to agricultural farmland.

After the war had ended in 1995, the international community began to categorize and assess the full extent of the war. The following section of this article explains the extent of the war crimes committed and how international human rights law was utilized to sentence the perpetrators years later.

Figure 5: Women shopping for leaves collected during a lull in fighting, Lowe, 1992.

Although various lower appellate courts had ruled on the conflict and had indeed found evidence of ethnic cleansing, the most famous case is that of Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, adjudicated by the International Court of Justice between 1993 and 2006. The Court held that the Srebrenica massacre- the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys- constituted genocide:

"By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted the extinction of 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 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" (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, 2007, p. 164).

Additionally, the Court found that Serbia had directly violated the Genocide Convention through its failure to stop the genocide from occurring and its failure to comply with Court-ordered measures to cease the violence (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, 2007, p. 99). Despite this, though the Court had indeed found evidence that both war crimes and ethnic cleansing had indeed occurred, the Court had no jurisdiction to decide whether a broader genocide had taken place and could not rely solely on the presence of ethnic cleansing to decide so. Due to the fact that the case dealt “exclusively with genocide in a limited legal sense and not the broader sense sometimes given to this term,” the Court ruled that Serbia had not committed genocide nor conspired to commit the action within the broader region of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sense Tribunal, 2007).

Finally, an International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was formed in 1993 to prosecute and send the perpetrators of war crimes to trial. The most famous result was the charge of then-Serbian president Slobodan Milošević with violations of the Geneva Convention and genocide (BBC, 2001). Outside of Milošević, numerous other high-ranking officials, including former presidents and paramilitary leaders, were indicted and convicted for their actions during the war.

Figure 6: Torn Milošević poster, Dworzak, 2001.

The Bosnian Civil War remains one of the most relevant wars of the twentieth century due to its visceral impact on its victims and the grave number of war crimes committed during its three years. Through acts such as deliberate ethnic cleansing, concentrated acts of sexual violence, and mass starvation, the human rights of said victims were inherently diminished and purposefully weakened. The right to peaceful assembly, access to clean drinking water and a reliable supply of food, and existence without the threat of sexual violence were drastically altered for the civilians directly affected by the conflict. Moving forward, the international human rights arena has been permanently changed by the actions witnessed during the war. The following article in this series deals with contemporary discussions on international human rights, influenced by the Bosnian Civil War.

Bibliographical References

BBC. (2007, June 21). Bosnia War Dead Figure Announced. BBC News. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from BBC. (2001, November 23). Milosevic Charged with Bosnia Genocide. BBC News. Retrieved July 14, 2022, from

Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro (ICJ 2007). Collingham, L. (2012). The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. United Kingdom: Penguin Books. Costalli, S., & Moro, F. N. (2012). Ethnicity and strategy in the Bosnian civil war: Explanations for the severity of violence in Bosnian municipalities. Journal of Peace Research, 49(6), 801–815. Crowe, D. (2013). War Crimes, Genocide, and Justice: A Global History. Palgrave Macmillan. Redžić, S. (2010). Use of Wild and Semi-Wild Edible Plants in Nutrition and Survival of People in 1430 Days of Siege of Sarajevo during the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995). Collegium Anthropologicum 34(2), 551–570. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC, 1998). Salzman, T. A. (1998). Rape Camps as a Means of Ethnic Cleansing: Religious, Cultural, and Ethical Responses to Rape Victims in the Former Yugoslavia. Human Rights Quarterly, 20(2), 348–378. Sense Tribunal. (2007). Serbia Found Guilty of Failure to Prevent and Punish Genocide. Sense Tribunal. Retrieved July 14, 2022 from Slavková, M. (2019). Starving Srebrenica and the Recipes for Survival in the Bosnian War (1992–1995). Český Lid, 106(3), 297–316. United Nations. (n.d.). United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the responsibility to protect. United Nations. Retrieved July 16, 2022, from

Walasek, H. (2020). Bosnia and the destruction of identity. In V. Apaydin (Ed.), Critical Perspectives on Cultural Memory and Heritage: Construction, Transformation and Destruction (pp. 224–238). UCL Press. Weidmann, N. B. (2011). Violence “from above” or “from below”? The Role of Ethnicity in Bosnia’s Civil War. The Journal of Politics, 73(4), 1178–1190.

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