Human Rights Abuses during a Cease-Fire and Peace Negotiations

Vol. 8, No. 1 (D), February 1996



Areas of northwestern Bosnia under Bosnian Serb control were the site of a brutal endgame of “ethnic cleansing,” murder, and rape, even as a cease-fire and the Dayton Peace Accord were being negotiated. From August through November 1995, more than 6,000 non-Serbs were systematically and brutally driven from their homes. At least two thousand non-Serb draft-age males were separated from their families and taken away to unknown locations. Many are still missing; some are believed dead, others remain in detention and forced labor. According to reports of witnesses, Bosnian Serb forces were assisted in attacks against non-Serbs by the particularly brutal paramilitary group led by Zeljko Raznatovic, a.k.a “Arkan”— a force sponsored and sheltered by the government of Serbia.

Today, as the troops of the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) are deployed pursuant to the Dayton Accord, IFOR commanders have been reluctant to station troops in areas such as northwestern Bosnia, despite the recent history of abuse. In this area, where British commanders are the principal IFOR authority, international troops insist on focusing almost exclusively on the military front line, even though most abuses of civilians have been committed away from military confrontation lines. The Banja Luka area — and most of Bosnian Serb-held areas of northwestern Bosnia — are among the most dangerous in the country for non-Serbs. Banja Luka has been referred to as the “heart of darkness” by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Although this region has largely been spared battles between armed forces, severe human rights abuses have been committed with impunity against non-Serbs since the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992. Yet British officials have indicated to Human Rights Watch that IFOR will probably keep only a token presence in Banja Luka because it is distant from the “zone of separation” dividing the adversarial armies.

Although the Dayton agreement authorizes IFOR to support the work of the mission’s civilian component, including agencies tasked with human rights protection and refugee repatriation, IFOR contributing countries — particularly the United States, Britain and France—are focusing primarily on monitoring the cease-fire and separating the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian government armies and the Bosnian Croat militia. Preventing renewed attacks on non-combatants, let alone bringing to justice those who organized the killing of the recent past, has been a low priority.

A similar hands-off approach toward serious abuses played a large role in the failure of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. Civilian aid workers of the UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other agencies were attacked and unable to protect non-Serbs in the region due, in part, to the unwillingness of the U.N. to support and assist their work. Similar inaction by IFOR would almost certainly doom the current peace agreement as repressive forces come to recognize that little stands in the way of renewed slaughter or abuses of civilians.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki does not deny that military issues must be the main priority of military entities like IFOR. However, a strong military presence is essential in deterring abuses and helping civilian agents to protect human rights, conduct police patrols, deliver humanitarian aid, elect representatives who will not advocate violence as a solution to problems, and build the rule of law. Throughout the war, civilians in Bosnia-Hercegovina repeatedly told Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives that international presence is not enough—a strong, proactive presence is necessary if an atmosphere of trust and security between the former warring communities is to be created. This atmosphere is critical to successful repatriation, reconciliation, and for a lasting peace. IFOR’s reluctance to deploy substantial numbers of troops outside the “zone of separation” will hinder civilian humanitarian efforts in northwestern Bosnia and elsewhere. IFOR’s support to civilian efforts to ensure the safety of those who have survived the war, including refugees who seek to repatriate, and for those minorities who wish to remain in their homes, is a central part of the Dayton agreement. Such a proactive IFOR role is, indeed, fundamental to the success of the current peace process.

There are already many serious challenges to the Dayton agreement which provide important opportunities for IFOR and the international community to demonstrate concern for human rights and convey the intention to ensure compliance with the agreement. Minorities remaining in majority areas throughout the region still fear they will be forced from their homes, despite the Dayton Agreement—or perhaps because of it. On January 25, in the village of Majdan, near the town of Mrkonjic Grad, Croat troops arrived with twenty trucks and began the forced relocation of hundreds of Croat civilians to the town of Glamoc. Majdan is slated to come under Bosnian Serb control under the Dayton Agreement. The forced displacement and political resettlement of civilians, in this case conducted by soldiers of their own ethnic group, is only one example of the kind of abuses civilians have continued to experience despite the Dayton accords. In Sanski Most, Bosnian government authorities recently held Serb civilians, some of them elderly, for exchange. In Banja Luka, hundreds of men remain in forced labor or are otherwise unaccounted for. The absence of a strong international response to such events risks renewal of the recent ethnic slaughter described in these pages.

In November 1995, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki investigators interviewed persons from nine towns and villages in and near the Sanski Most region in northwestern Bosnia. All gave similar accounts of recent “ethnic cleansing” in their areas. The pattern of expulsion and disappearance in the Sanski Most area was virtually identical to that in the other eight cities, towns and villages described in this report. This latest wave of “ethnic cleansing” began following offensives in August and September 1995 against rebel Serb-held areas of the Krajina region of Croatia and western Bosnia. These offensives, led by the Croatian and Bosnian Armies and the Bosnian Croat militia, displaced over 250,000 Serbs. In retaliation, Bosnian Serb military and civilian authorities—and paramilitary groups from Serbia proper—intensified their campaign of terror against Muslims and Croats in the municipalities of Banja Luka, Prijedor, Sanski Most and other areas of northwestern Bosnia, leaving a trail of mass-abductions and scores of civilian corpses.

Soldiers typically arrived in a town or village with buses and trucks and went house to house, ordering people from their homes. Soldiers began at one end of the town and worked their way toward the other. Under threat of death, residents were ordered to give up their money and jewelry. Witnesses reported that the troops who evicted them were well-trained, efficient, brutal, and very interested in robbing everyone. Many townspeople stated that the soldiers were not local Serbs, although local Serbs accompanied them around the area and, according to townspeople, showed the non-local troops where Muslims and Croats lived. In some cases, Serbs recently displaced from the Krajina area—but more often Serbs recently displaced from western Bosnia—would occupy the homes of those who had been expelled.

As the non-Serbian population was being ousted, women, children and the elderly were detained in various locations and then expelled to Bosnian government-controlled areas. Men of military age were generally separated from the women and children and told that they were being sent to perform forced labor duties for the Bosnian Serb military, usually along the front lines. The whereabouts of many of these men remains unknown. In some cases, men were also detained with the women, children and elderly, but they were removed from the buses before reaching Bosnian government-controlled territory and subsequently “disappeared.” Those remaining on the buses were frequently robbed of all their belongings. In many instances, detainees were beaten, tortured, and raped. Some were beaten to death or summarily executed.

Witnesses often referred to the soldiers committing the abuses as “Arkanovci,” referring to the so-called Tigers paramilitary group led by Zeljko Raznatovic, whose nom de guerre is “Arkan.” These paramilitary units are based in Serbia proper, were armed and trained by the Interior Ministry of Serbia in the early 1990s, and are shielded by the current Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. In many cases, witnesses’ descriptions of the troops’ insignia, uniform and general appearance resemble those of Arkan’s paramilitaries. Moreover, both local and Western media reports indicate that Arkan arrived in the Bosanska Krajina area some time in August 1995.

According to evidence and information gathered by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives and presented in this report, possibly over one hundred civilians were summarily executed en masse in the region just prior to the final signing of the Dayton peace agreement. Furthermore, in mid-January 1996, European Union monitors and Bosnian investigators identified six mass graves in northwestern Bosnia containing the bodies of approximately 240 suspected victims of “ethnic cleansing” by Serbian forces in 1992, all within fifteen kilometers of Sanski Most. Of additional great concern are reports indicating that Bosnian Serb forces have begun to exhume and destroy mass graves in northwestern Bosnia.

The New York Times of January 11, 1996 quoted Lt. Col. Benjamin Barry, the commander of the British forces whose headquarters are located a mile away from a mine in which corpses were being destroyed. He said, “Our job is to separate forces, not look for mass graves. . . . It would be a diversion of soldiers from our main goal.” Despite overwhelming evidence that mass grave sites are being tampered with in Bosnian Serb-held territories—including the region around Srebrenica—IFOR troops have refused to step in and halt the destruction of evidence.

Human Rights Watch/Helsinki is deeply concerned at the reluctance of IFOR to uphold a central part of its mandate by providing the full and necessary support for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, including by securing the sites of mass graves and locating and detaining indicted war criminals. The Dayton agreement and the Security Council resolution implementing the agreement give an important role to IFOR in supporting the tribunal’s work. This role reflects the importance of establishing the rule of law to the success of the peace process. IFOR’s refusal to accept this role sends the message that there is no price to be paid for the slaughter of civilians, at least so long as it takes place away from military front lines. That message puts the peace process at risk by encouraging Bosnian factions to take the law into their own hands and to resume the cycle of ethnic violence and revenge that has fueled the Bosnian conflict. This cycle will not be broken until the rule of law is established and the authors of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity are brought to justice.



With a view to establishing the rule of law and respect for human rights in northwestern Bosnia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki offers the following recommendations to IFOR and its civilian component:

Begin the immediate collection of information on the sites of suspected mass graves and deploy IFOR troops to secure the sites.

Deploy additional troops to areas outside the zone of separation and maintain a strong military presence in Bosnian Serb-held areas, not just along the cease-fire line and the Muslim-Croat federation. This way, IFOR will be able to monitor and through its presence, protect the human rights of civilians, particularly minorities, displaced persons and returning refugees. Furthermore, IFOR, together with the civilian component established by the Dayton agreement, will play a vital role in facilitating inter-ethnic reconciliation and the re-establishment of civil society—a goal that the civilian component is unlikely to achieve on its own.

Restore complete freedom of movement: To ensure safety for all civilians who chose to travel through former enemy territories’ and facilitate the voluntary repatriation of the displaced, IFOR should guarantee safe passage in high-risk areas. The very presence of IFOR will help to mitigate human rights abuses, reminding the local authorities of their obligations and the fact that they are being monitored.

Establish an effective standard operating procedure for addressing human rights violations that occur in front of IFOR troops so that they do not become silent witnesses to human rights abuses. During the U.N.’s mission in the former Yugoslavia, civil police assigned to UNPROFOR conducted investigations of human rights abuses but had no effective procedure or channel for reporting human rights violations.

Undertake an active intelligence effort to identify the location of indicted war criminals and initiate an active education effort by providing all IFOR troops with photographs and descriptions of indicted war criminals so troops will recognize those under indictment when encountered.


Because the ombudsman and the International Police Task Force (IPTF) commissioner are to report to the High Representative, Carl Bildt—the highest ranking civilian official under the terms of the Dayton accord—must publicly and forcefully protest any and all human rights abuses in the area. He must, according to the Dayton agreement, as a last resort seek punitive action against any party that refuses to correct its abusive behavior or to cooperate with international efforts to prosecute war crimes as established in Security Council Resolution 1022, the Dayton agreement and the London Document.

A large and qualified human rights and police monitoring mission must be deployed without delay in Bosnian Serb-controlled areas of northwestern Bosnia. To this end, the human rights ombudswoman envisioned in the Dayton agreement must be provided with a staff and budget large enough to enable her thoroughly to investigate abuses brought to her attention. The human rights monitoring mission is strongly encouraged to intervene in cases; monitoring and reporting are not enough. IPTF delineated in the Dayton accord must be similarly staffed and funded.

The fate of the disappeared from northern Bosnia—be they those taken for forced labor, detention, arbitrary arrest or execution—must be immediately determined. A positive identification of those executed or otherwise killed must be made available to the victims’ families.

Unimpeded visits to all reported centers of detention should be granted immediately to representatives of the ICRC and human rights organizations. Lists of prisoners should be made public in order to confirm the fate of missing persons.

Those Serbs who speak publicly against the positions of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic must be afforded the same rights and protection as all others susceptible to abuse because of their religious, ethnic, national or political affiliation. Serbs opposed to the current regime of the Republika Srpska must be allowed to campaign all Bosnian Serb-held areas prior to the holding of elections in those areas, as specified by the Dayton agreement.

A genuinely free media must be established to counter the propaganda that currently pervades all areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, including Bosnian Serb-held areas. The lack of free exchange of unbiased information has kept the element of hostility and intolerance alive in the minds of many civilians, soldiers and politicians. Efforts should be made by the international community to facilitate a free exchange of information that is not controlled by any ruling party.


The Security Council should delay the lifting of sanctions against the Bosnian Serbs until they fulfill the basic conditions set out in resolution 1022, which requires full compliance with all provisions of the peace accord. In particular, Human Rights Watch believes that sanctions should not be lifted until the Bosnian Serbs demonstrate the following: Cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; the release of all prisoners, including combatants and civilians held in detention or forced labor, which is prohibited under the agreement; freedom of movement, including the right to return; full and unimpeded access for humanitarian and human rights organizations; the protection of ethnic and/or minority populations.







      Summary Executions
      “Ethnic Cleansing” of Villages and Towns in the Sanski Most Area
            Stari Majdan
            Sanski Most
            Stara Rijeka
      Mistreatment in Detention

      Banja Luka
      Bosanska Dubica
      Bosanski Novi
      Bosanska Gradiska


Human Rights Watch      February 1996      Vol. 8, No. 1 (D)

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