On 14 December 1995, representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Yugoslavia (comprising Serbia and Montenegro) signed the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (GFA). Also known as the Dayton Accords or the Dayton Agreement, having been initialled in the US city of Dayton, Ohio, the previous month, the GFA signalled the end to a war in Bosnia which had left approximately 100,000 dead. The governance arrangements it created for Bosnia and Herzegovina remain in place today.

The bitter conflict, rooted in ethnic divisions and territorial claims in the country following the breakup of Yugoslavia, is infamous for the war crimes that took place between the years 1992–5. Although Serbs and Bosnian Serbs are regarded by many as the main perpetrators of war crimes during the conflict, the court which the United Nations (UN) set up to investigate these crimes brought charges against individuals from every nationality and ethnicity who took part in the war.

As the end of the conflict nears its 25th anniversary, this article examines the causes of the war and its lasting impact.

Causes of the war

The roots of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found in the ethnic and religious divides in the country. The 1991 census shows that Bosnian Muslims (who from the mid-1990s used the term Bosniak for themselves) comprised 43.5% of the population, with Serbs and Croats making up 31.2% and 17.4% respectively. Religious affiliation both then and now is roughly equated with ethnicity, with the Serbs primarily belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Croats mostly being members of the Roman Catholic Church.

The three main parties in the last election before the war, held in 1990, reflected this split: the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), principally made up of Bosniaks; the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS); and the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH).

Up until 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina was part of Yugoslavia, alongside other countries such as Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Both Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in June 1991, but Bosnian Serbs strongly opposed any moves towards an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina; a move which would leave the Bosnian Serbs in a minority compared to the Bosniak population.

In 1991, Serbian-dominated territories in Bosnia set up Serb Autonomous Regions (SARs). In August of that year, the SDS began to boycott the Bosnian presidency meeting and Serb parliamentarians rejected a resolution to declare independence and removed its deputies from the Bosnian Parliament. A referendum of Bosnian Serbs in November showed strong support for remaining in a common state with Serbs elsewhere in Yugoslavia.

On 9 January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs declared a “Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which would include Serb-held areas of Bosnia and be headed by Radovan Karadžić, then leader of the SDS.

The Bosnian Government responded by declaring the Serb republic to be illegal and, following a referendum on independence which most Bosnian Serbs boycotted, the Bosnian Government declared the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 3 March 1992.

Proposals by the European Commission to divide the country into ethnic “cantons” were rejected by all three main ethnic parties. On 7 April 1993, the European Commission and the United States both formally recognised the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serb forces began a bombardment of the capital Sarajevo soon afterwards. The following three years saw bitter fighting which left around 100,000 dead, around 80% of that total coming from the Bosniak population.

War crimes and atrocities

On 25 May 1993, UN Security Council Resolution 808 established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to examine crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. The tribunal was the first international tribunal for the prosecution of war crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crime trials following the second world war.

By 2017, when it closed, the ICTY had indicted 161 individuals. It sentenced 90 of these for crimes such as: genocide; crimes against humanity; violations of the laws or customs of war; and grave breaches of the Geneva conventions.

Crimes included widespread policies of murder, rape and torture as part of a wider policy of “ethnic cleansing”. Use of rape and abuse of women was described by the United Nations as a “deliberate weapon of war”. The UN has estimated that there were 20,000–40,000 victims of rape during the conflict.

Events in Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serbs overran UN-declared “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa and murdered between 7,000–8,000 Muslim men and boys, were labelled a genocide by the ICTY.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) describes how bodies from the massacre were buried in numerous mass graves, and details an “orchestrated effort to conceal evidence of the crimes”. Perpetrators used heavy machinery to remove bodies from primary mass graves to secondary sites, sometimes 50 kilometres away from the original execution site. These actions resulted “in bodies being disarticulated, with the remains of one person often deposited in several different graves”. To date, the ICMP has identified the remains of almost 7,000 of those who disappeared during the genocide.

Those convicted of crimes in Srebrenica include the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadžić, and the former commander of the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army, Ratko Mladić. In August 2020, Ratko Mladić began appealing against his conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The lasting impacts of the conflict were underlined again, in February 2020, when the UK Government was asked about the support it funded for children born as a result of rape during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In response, the Government outlined its continuing support for groups in the country through the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI).

Commentators have suggested that war crimes in Srebrenica can be seen as playing a significant role in bringing the war to an end, causing international outrage and increasing pressure on the UN and NATO to mount more extensive air strikes in response to attacks on safe areas. These strikes, combined with successes on the ground, led the Bosnian Serbs to agree to peace talks in Dayton, Ohio in November. The Dayton peace accords, initialled in November 1995, were signed in Paris a month later.

Speaking to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Srebrenica in July 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres argued “the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still fragile. We cannot let up in working towards genuine reconciliation. We owe this to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, the survivors, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to all humanity”.

Cover image by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash.