RAPE IN BOSNIA-HERCEGOVINA
Human Rights Watch has been documenting violations of the rules of war in Croatia and Bosnia since the beginning of the wars there in 1991 and 1992, respectively.12 The wars in the former Yugoslavia are in fact wars against civilians who have been subjected to violent and abusive practices on the basis of nationality. Crimes have been committed by all sides, but the chief offenders have been Serbian military and paramilitary forces. The aim of their vicious policy of "ethnic cleansing" has been to rid an area of an "enemy ethnic group" through murder, forced displacement, deportation, detention or confinement to ghetto areas, destruction of villages and cultural and religious objects of the "enemy" ethnic group. Mass rape of women has also been used as a tool of "ethnic cleansing," meant to terrorize, torture and demean women and their families and compel them to flee the area.
In Croatia, the Croatian government has been engaged in an armed conflict with rebel Serbian authorities that control approximately 20 percent of Croatia, have established their own "state" and seek secession from Croatia. Similarly in Bosnia, the predominantly Muslim government is battling rebel Bosnian Serb forces that control approximately 70 percent of Bosnia, have established their own "state" and seek secession from Bosnia. Rebel Serb forces in both Croatia and Bosnia seek to join Serbia proper in a single Serbian state. Croats from Bosnia also have established their own quasi-state in Bosnia, but, as of this writing, are ostensibly allied with Bosnian government forces. Bosnian Croat forces are not part of the armed forces of Croatia proper but are armed and otherwise supported by the Croatian government.
The heartland and geographic center of the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia was a microcosm of the country, where two million Muslims, 1.3 million Serbs, and 750,000 Croats lived together in ostensible harmony. The Bosnian Muslims are distinguished as an "ethnic group," which is both a means of national self-definition and religion.
When Bosnia proclaimed its independence in 1992, it was open, vulnerable, and unarmed, susceptible to attacks from its warring and heavily armed neighbors. Just a few months after the shaky truce that ended the first stage of the Serbian-Croatian conflict, Bosnia became the ground on which the Serbs and Croats continued their separate quests for territory. Although theCroats and Muslims were first allies, then enemies, and then ostensibly allies again, their alliance remains fragile, as each side jockeys for control of territory and armaments.
Most of the abuses attributable to the predominantly Muslim forces of the Bosnian government are perpetuated by individuals and do not appear to be part of a pre-meditated plan of the Bosnian authorities. Nevertheless, Bosnian Croat and Muslim forces are guilty of serious abuses of human rights and humanitarian law. Moreover, the destruction of Serbian property and the holding of hostages in many cases appear to be known to local or regional officials who have done little to prevent such abuses. Bosnian Croat officials of at least two detention facilities knew of, or participated in, the commission of abuses in the facilities under their control. The authorities of the self-proclaimed "Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosnia" also are guilty of organizing the arbitrary arrests and internments of non-Croats in the Mostar, Stolac and Capljina areas. Although Croatian and Muslim forces have improved treatment in detention centers under their control, few soldiers have been held accountable for any abuses they may have perpetrated.
Many of the abuses attributed to Serbian forces have followed a recognizable pattern that has come to be known as "ethnic cleansing," first used during the war in Croatia and, more recently, in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The primary aim of Serbian forces is to capture or consolidate control over territory by forcibly displacing or killing non-Serbs in the area. Forced displacement is itself a violation of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). The abuses that constitute "ethnic cleansing" often occur together in various combinations: attacks against civilian targets, the use of siege warfare and the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force; pillage and the destruction of civilian homes and cultural objects; summary executions; abuses in detention; rape; mutilation; hostage-taking; and the obstruction of humanitarian aid and attacks on relief personnel.
In most Serbian-held areas of Bosnia, abuses against non-Serbs appear to be the result of a premeditated plan by local and regional civilian, military and/or police authorities. In some instances, such abuses are perpetrated by individual soldiers or single military, paramilitary and police units. The public nature of the abuses and the frequency with which they take place indicate that individual soldiers and military units do not anticipate disciplinary action by their superiors. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any case in which Bosnian Serb forces guilty of abuses have been punished by their superiors for their crimes. The failure by civilian, military and police officials of "Republika Srpska," the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb state, to punish soldiersinvolved in abuses, despite documentation of and international attention to human rights abuse by Serbian soldiers, indicates that such officials knowingly tolerate and even condone the violations.
In the Bosnian war, unlike other wars, rape has been widely reported and condemned, in part because it represents yet another unchecked horror in an ongoing, brutalizing war. This unprecedented attention to rape may also reflect a change in the public perception of rape, due largely to the efforts of the international women's movement to condemn rape as a weapon of war and ensure accountability for those responsible. Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, rape, as a form of torture and of cruel and inhuman treatment, is a violation of basic human rights and a war crime. The rapes in Bosnia have heightened public awareness of this crime and may help to ensure that rape in the future will be prosecuted with the same vigor as other war crimes.
Combatants for each of the parties to the conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina have raped women and girls in their homes, in front of family members and in the village square. Women have been arrested and raped during interrogation. In some villages and towns, women and girls have been gathered together and taken to holding centers—often schools or community sports halls—where they are raped, gang-raped and abused repeatedly, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. Other women have been taken seemingly at random from their communities or out of a group of refugees with whom they are traveling and raped by soldiers. Whether a woman is raped by soldiers in her home or is held in a house with other women and raped over and over again, she is raped with a political purpose—to intimidate, humiliate and degrade her and others affected by her suffering. The effect of rape is often to ensure that women and their families will flee and never return. Rape by Bosnian Serb soldiers has been particularly systematic and widespread.
Women interviewed by Human Rights Watch described how they were gang-raped, taunted with ethnic slurs and cursed by rapists who stated their intention forcibly to impregnate women as a haunting reminder of the rape and intensification of the trauma it inflicts. In our view, the forcible impregnation of women, or the intention to so impregnate them, constitutes an abuse separate from the rape itself and should be denounced and investigated as such. Moreover, the rape of women in an organized fashion—whether in buildings where they are kept for the purpose of being raped or in camps where they are detained with family members—establishes that local commanders must know that their soldiers are raping women and do nothing to stop these abuses.
Although we have not found hard evidence showing a policy of deploying rape as a means of tactical warfare, we also found no evidence that any soldier or member of a paramilitary group has been punished or held to account for raping women and girls. To the contrary, soldiers often rape without regard for witnesses, and, on occasion, identify themselves to their victims. These are not the actions of men who fear retribution. The failure to punish rapists appears to be as consistent and widespread as the act of rape itself.
12 The following material was adapted from Helsinki Watch, War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Volume II (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1993).
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