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Rape in the Bosnian War: An end to Impunity?

Part 4/4

The 1990s marks a period of action and reaction to wartime rape. It was a period that witnessed two highly publicized rape campaigns throughout the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. It was also a period that saw the creation of two international tribunals set up to officially criminalize rape under international law. It has been 21 years since the end of the Bosnian war, and it appears that the international community has observed justice, but what about the survivors left outside the reach of these international criminal tribunals? Have they obtained justice or have we not really witnessed an end to impunity (or the exemption from punishment) after all?


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Alongside the infamous genocide, rape was also a defining characteristic of the Bosnian war that took place from 1992-1995. During this brief period, it is estimated that approximately 20,000-60,000 rapes took place.[1] Although all sides were guilty of rape, the main perpetrators were the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) and Serb paramilitary units, who are estimated to have carried out over 80% of rapes.[2] It was only when American newspaper Newsday published the article ‘Mass Rape: Muslims recall Serb attacks,’ that these crimes gained international recognition, providing the impetus needed to launch a formal UN investigation. This investigation led to the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to deal with these crimes. Yet was this impetus enough to tackle impunity once and for all?

The Bosnian War: 1992-1995

In the late 1980s, as a result of growing economic tensions and a rise in nationalism, the six republics comprising Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. In 1991, wars began to break out over self-declared Slovenian and Croatian independence. Yet, it was the Bosnian war of 1992 which witnessed the most notorious war crimes. In March 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina voted for independence. This was met with extreme resistance, primarily from Bosnian-Serbs. Aided by Serbia and the Yugoslav Peoples’ Army, Bosnian-Serbs began to assert their power throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. This was the beginning of a three-year long territorial battle between Bosniaks, Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats.

Sexual Violence as a Military Strategy

One defining characteristic of the Bosnian war was the prominence of sexual enslavement. Bosnian Muslim women and children were rounded up and enslaved in various ‘rape camps’ scattered across Serb-controlled territories. Many accounts report of how Bosnian Muslim women were held in captivity and repeatedly raped for months on end. Many were only let out to be taken to the private homes of Serb soldiers to be used for their personal pleasure.[3]

One Muslim teenager recalls women and teenagers being forced to cook, serve and dance naked for the amusement of their Serb captors. Other accounts recall multiple women having their breasts cut off for trying to resist rape.[4] Although these camps were the most typical scenes of rape, it was still common for  Muslims to be raped in their own homes. One child, hiding, recalls their mother and sisters being raped.[5] Another child also witnessed their father being forced to rape other family members.[6]

Despite the majority of victims being Muslim females, men were also subjected to rape. Witness testimonies recall Serb paramilitaries raping and impaling Muslim men, leaving them to slowly bleed to death. [7]

In total, 20,000-60,000 civilians were raped.[8] Although these figures are imprecise and widely debated, they don’t account for those that were slaughtered after being raped and for those who never reported their rape due to the cultural stigma attached to it. Although the quantity, age, and sex of victims vary, one thing remains consistent; the vast majority of victims were Bosnian Muslim. These rapes were not simply an inevitable consequence of war, but a planned and systematic military tactic.

So why did Serbs rape so many Bosnian Muslims? Why did they even choose to rape in the first place? Many witnesses recall repeatedly being told “you are going to have our children. You are going to have our little Chetniks.”[9] The goal of raping and subsequently impregnating so many women was so that they could produce Serbian children and therefore contribute to the ‘greater Serbia.’[10] Another reason for this tactic was ethnic cleansing. Serbs wanted to punish their victims for being Muslim by degrading them in the hope they would never return to their homes again, thereby expelling them from Bosnian territories altogether.

Establishing Global Justice: The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

On the 23 August 1992, Newsday released an article called “Mass Rape: Muslims recall Serb attacks.” The article triggered international outcry as harrowing accounts of Muslim ordeals began to surface in the international media. This outcry eventually led to an official UN investigation which led to the establishment of the ICTY. The ICTY was the first international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg. It was also the first tribunal to criminalize rape as a form of torture and sexual enslavement, as well as recognise rape as a crime against humanity.[11] It also held rape to be a form of torture and a means of ethnic cleansing.[12] Since 2011, the ICTY has convicted 30 high-ranking officials for their responsibility in orchestrating and perpetrating mass rape.[13]

The End of Impunity?

Although the ICTY can be celebrated as a triumph with its explicit criminalisation of rape, it can only prosecute individuals at the highest state or military level. Lower ranking perpetrators are thereby left in the hands of national authorities. In Serbia and Republika Srpska respectively, a culture of denial and impunity has been allowed to flourish. Serbia has failed to adequately co-operate with the ICTY by not handing over those indicted to the ICTY, and failing to prosecute lower ranking officials. This can be illustrated by the fact that, to date, only 76 trials have been held in Bosnia, as well as only 2 in Serbia.[14] Of these trials, many were acquitted or given very light sentences. To add to this, 21 years later, the majority of survivors have received no reparation for the medical treatment they require as a result of their rape.[15]

Still, this lack of progress cannot entirely be attributed to Serbian attitudes, there is also a huge issue of under-reporting. This is mainly due to cultural stigmas attached to rape and the fact that, in most cases, reporting doesn’t bring about much change for the victims.

Conclusion

The systematized and barbaric nature of Bosnian Muslim rape, coupled with better international media coverage was enough to provide the impetus needed to finally officially criminalize rape under international criminal law. Although the creation of the ICTY and its respective convictions can be celebrated as a long-awaited success, the unfortunate fact remains that many victims have still not seen any glimmer of justice for what happened to them. This is mainly down to the general reluctance of Serbian authorities to investigate and indict alleged perpetrators. Yet, it is also because of the fact that many rape victims were slaughtered after their rape, and also that many victims never reported what happened, for fear of being stigmatized.

Serbia has now entered negotiations to join the EU, it remains to be seen whether justice will be a prerequisite for accession, or whether this culture of impunity will remain shrouded in a wall of silence.


Sophie Jackson is a graduate student from the University of Groningen. With a background in gender equality, philosophy, international criminal law and human rights, she writes about sustainable development through issues arising from serious human rights violations.


IN THIS BLOG

Part 1/4: Eradicating Sexual Violence as a Tool of War: Why has Impunity Existed for so Long?

Part 2/4: The Rape of Nanking: A Forgotten Holocaust?

Part 3/4: The Rape of Germany

Part 4/4: Rape in the Bosnian War: An End to Impunity?


ViissiArt: Signe Westi, Made for Viissi


References

[1] K. Booth, The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimensions, Routledge, p.73; , Fox News, UN Official: Bosnia war rapes must be prosecuted, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/11/26/official-bosnia-war-rapes-prosecuted.html.

[2] S. Vranic, Mass Rape in Bosnia- Breaking the Wall of Silence, http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/bosnia/rapes.html.

[3] M. Hirsch, Bosnia, Women Under Siege, http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/conflicts/profile/bosnia.

[4] M. Hirsch, Bosnia, Women Under Siege, http://www.womenundersiegeproject.org/conflicts/profile/bosnia.

[5] S. Vranic, Mass Rape in Bosnia- Breaking the Wall of Silence, http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/bosnia/rapes.html.

[6] S. Vranic, Mass Rape in Bosnia- Breaking the Wall of Silence, http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/bosnia/rapes.html.

[7] S. Vranic, Mass Rape in Bosnia- Breaking the Wall of Silence, http://www.barnsdle.demon.co.uk/bosnia/rapes.html.

[8] K. Booth, The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimensions, Routledge, p.73; , Fox News, UN Official: Bosnia war rapes must be prosecuted, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2010/11/26/official-bosnia-war-rapes-prosecuted.html.

[9] R. Fisk, Bosnia War Crimes: The rapes went on day and night, Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html.

[10] G. Halsell, Women’s Bodies a Battlefield in War for “Greater Serbia,” Washington Report, http://www.wrmea.org/1993-april-may/women-s-bodies-a-battlefield-in-war-for-greater-serbia.html.

[11] United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Crimes of Sexual Violence, http://www.icty.org/en/in-focus/crimes-sexual-violence.

[12] United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Crimes of Sexual Violence, http://www.icty.org/en/in-focus/crimes-sexual-violence.

[13] United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Crimes of Sexual Violence, http://www.icty.org/en/in-focus/crimes-sexual-violence.

[14] OSCE, Delivering justice for wartime sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, http://www.osce.org/bih/117037; Humanitarian Law Center, No Justice for Victims of Wartime Sexual Violence, http://www.hlc-rdc.org/?p=30745&lang=de.

[15] Amnesty International, Serbia: Ending Impunity for Crimes under International Law, p. 39, http://www.amnesty.eu/content/assets/Press_Release_images/17062014_serbia_report.pdf.

Useful Resources

Websites

Hughes, Bosnia’s wartime rape survivors losing hope of justice, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26833510

Amnesty International, Bosnia and Herzegovina: Time for Republika Srpska to make reparations for wartime rapehttps://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2012/10/bosnia-and-herzegovina-time-republika-srpska-make-reparations-war-time-rape/.

Books

I, Antibarbarius, Breaking the Wall of Silence: The Voices of Raped Bosnia.

Documentaries

I Came to Testify, Women, War & Peace 5 part special, PBS

 

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