An International Quagmire: Genocide and Intervention During the Bosnian War, 1992-1995

What happens when a genocide is carried out in a region of negligible value to the ‘international community’?


The end of the Cold War marked a new era of peace and stability in Europe, or as British historian Niall Ferguson wrote, an “ideological happy ending” that saw Western capitalist democracy prevail. Yet, this new world order was threatened upon the break-up of Yugoslavia (1990-1992) in which a war of succession erupted within Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) characterised as etničko čišćenje (‘ethnic cleansing’) against Bosnian Muslims by Serbian and Bosnian-Serbian military forces (VRS). First coined in 1987 by accused perpetrator Slobodan Milošević, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ became the official language of international diplomacy and law. When it comes to genocide, or ‘ethnic cleansing’, the question of why the world stood still or failed to do more to prevent the atrocities committed within Bosnia needs to be asked, especially when trying to determine whether or not Bosnia became the new ‘Holocaust’ of the twentieth century.

The problem with the Bosnian case is that the international community saw Bosnia, geopolitically, as being of negligible value. To them, the Bosnian conflict was a result of centuries-old ethnic tensions between three ethnically similar albeit religiously different groups; not from the (geo)political desire of the Serbians to create an ethnically pure ‘Greater Serbia’. And while the international community eventually did intervene, they did so in response to public pressure as a result of media coverage, not from the intention of wanting to prevent atrocities of genocide, and ethnic cleansing, within Bosnia.


Ethnic Cleansing: A Form of Genocide?

Ethnically diverse areas generate tensions that, in most cases, lead to acts of genocide. For William A. Schabas, a Canadian academic specialising in human rights and international criminal law, acts of genocide and acts of ‘ethnic cleansing’ are two distinct concepts: genocide requires the intent to destroy, while ‘ethnic cleansing’ refers to the intent to drive out a targeted population. However, under article two of the Genocide Convention, the intentional destruction of an ethnic group in whole or in part is considered to be an act of ‘genocide’. This can occur either through deliberate killing, or deliberately inflicting conditions of life, such as forced deportation, to bring about the destruction of said group.

Surviving Bosnian Muslim victims of the Bosnian War have written about their ‘forced deportation’, with one survivor, Sanita Isović, poetically documenting:


Everywhere from Broda to Mostar,

our people are vanquished.

Vanquished or exiled,

and scattered around the world.

Until yesterday, we lived together,

sharing everything, both the good and the bad.

But now they banish us,

from Bosnia, from our own land.


Isović not only recalls acts of genocide that occurred throughout Bosnia in which her people were ‘vanquished’, but also acts of etničko čišćenje in which Bosnian Muslims were forcibly banished from their land, despite having lived in relative peace with, what became, their perpetrators. This poem not only identifies the correlation between genocide and its euphemism ‘ethnic cleansing’, it also highlights specific Bosnian Muslim victimisation through the experience of such acts.

Yet, the issue surrounding genocide and international foreign policy on intervention in Bosnia remained an ideological battleground for politicians. Various analysts and army generals took on a historicist approach to the Bosnian conflict by attributing instances of genocide to “rekindled regenerations of hatred”. They likened the situation to a mere continuation of communal strife, which not only denied the genocidal intent of the VRS to annihilate the Bosnian Muslim population for the geopolitical desire to build a ‘Greater Serbia’, but also halted international intervention.

An examination of the frequency in which the terms ‘ethnic cleansing’ and ‘genocide’ were used via the media reveal the ways in which the historicist perspective determined international reaction toward the conflict. Having analysed data reported by The New York Times (NYT), Rony Blum and co-authors found that since the inception of the war in 1991, the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used 3.5 times more than the term ‘genocide’. It was not until 1994 that the term ‘genocide’ began to supersede the term ‘ethnic cleansing’, but only after a reported 200,000 Bosnian Muslim victims were massacred. They concluded that the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ evidently did not carry the same pejorative weight as ‘genocide’, which ultimately excused international intervention up until 1995. And so, against this background, both the United States and European Community policymakers were able to legitimise their historicist stance on the Bosnian War simply by downplaying intended acts of genocide conducted by the VRS as processes of “population redistribution”.

Some columnists, like Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, also took a historicist stance on the war. In 1993, he wrote that paralleling Bosnian Muslim experiences to genocide “exaggerates the crimes of the Serbs and diminishes those of the Nazis” as it holds the Serbians “to a standard of evil that they may be unwilling or unable to meet”. But what Cohen didn’t take into account was that even though the ‘standard of evil’ committed by the Serbian aggressors was of a lesser extent (the largest figure being 329,000 compared to the six million in the case of the Jews),[1] to ignore their geopolitical motives—‘Greater Serbia’—and their consequent genocidal character would not only excuse them from being held accountable for their actions, but also the international community for failing to comply with article one of the Genocide Convention: preventing atrocities of genocide.

Though, not all news outlets fell short of implying genocidal intent in its early years of reporting. For instance, while Vere Hayes, the Chief of Staff on the UN force in Bosnia, insisted in 1993 that the siege in Sarajevo did not threaten the Bosnian Muslim population, the New York Times (NYT) reported otherwise, stating that 12,000 Bosnian Muslims were specifically targeted during the fifteen-month siege of the capital. It also reported that had the United States acted with force much earlier in the war, the “thorny problem” of Bosnia would have been “much less difficult to solve” and thus atrocities avoided. A month earlier, the NYT also expressed concern over the lack of international intervention in the war, reporting that the United States Secretary of State viewed the war as being “at heart… a European problem” that did not require a “leadership role” through intervention to prevent acts of genocide.

For British-Jewish historian Mark Mazower, claims by the international community that the Bosnian war was a “spontaneous eruption of primeval hatreds”, or as the NYT reported, a “European problem”, were misguided. In actuality, since its inception, the Bosnian war was “an organised violence against civilians by paramilitary squads and army units” that required immediate international intervention by militaristic means for the prevention of genocide. Political scientist, John Mueller, disagreed. He argued that the organised violence by ‘paramilitary squads and army units’ suggested by Mazower were merely “bands of opportunistic marauders” who arrayed themselves with the characteristics of nationalism.

The geopolitical and nationalistic desire to build a ‘Greater Serbia’ at the expense of the Bosnian population, however, can be traced back to the 1986 Serbian Memorandum. The memorandum proclaimed that since Serbia had been denied national autonomy since World War II, a Serbian nation-state needed to be established to ensure its “existence and development… regardless of which republic it inhabits” because it is its democratic and historic “right” to do so. And so, in 1991 just before the war erupted, Serbian leader Milošević and Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman devised a plan to partition Bosnia into two, with Tuđman proclaiming that there would be “no Muslim part”. Despite the fact that the Serbian memorandum demonstrated a conspiracy to commit genocide through public incitement, as recognised under of the Genocide Convention, the view by the international community that the Bosnian conflict was more a problem of history saw foreign policy determine Bosnia and its victims of genocide as being of negligible value, geopolitically.


Sarajevo, 2017.

International Intervention: A Little Too Late?

As the war waged and caught media attention, foreign policy drastically shifted, particularly as terminology, more so in the media than within government, changed from ‘ethnic cleansing’ to ‘genocide’. Thereby, various international UN battalions were sent immediately to be stationed in ‘safe zone’ areas, such as Srebrenica and Goražde, to prevent ‘ethnic cleansing’.

However, priority was placed more on humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and minimising risk to UN soldiers than on military assistance to arm Bosnian Muslim fighters and protect them from instances of genocide. While Western officials argued that military intervention would cause “collateral damage”, Bosnian civilians and politicians became disenfranchised, arguing that the ‘safe zones’ were nothing more than an opening for Serbian and, in some cases, Croatian “terrorist attacks”. Avdija Kovačević, writing about the 1993 Stupni Do massacre in Vareš, noted that the UN’s lack of military prowess enabled the Croatian army to “cleanse the ground of Muslims” and proclaim Vareš as their own.

Similarly, in a meeting with the Security Council in New York in 1993, the UN representative for Bosnia Muhamed Šaćirbegović asserted that the unwillingness of the international community to label the atrocities in Bosnia officially as acts of genocide demonstrated “a continuing exercise in avoidance of responsibility”. This avoidance, in which the international community focused on re-characterising the problem to suit the solution instead of taking proactive measures, unequivocally allowed Serbian aggression to take “full swing” against ‘safe zone’ areas throughout Bosnia. A year later, Šaćirbegović was still in deadlock, now asking for the further protection, ironically, of the ‘safe zone’ area Bihać.

For some historians such as David Stannard, Šaćirbegović’s assertions and requests for further protection held no ground. Upon analysing, albeit briefly, the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, Stannard insisted that international intervention and protection was unnecessary as, instead of seeking to destroy part of the Bosnian Muslims, the VRS sought to eliminate a “military threat”, but only because women and children were ‘spared’. But Stannard’s assertion is heavily predetermined. With his research focusing heavily on Native American experiences, Stannard had concluded that the Native American population underwent the “worst human holocaust”; he was thus unable to isolate the Bosnian conflict from the Native American case.

The inability to distinguish the circumstances of the Bosnian conflict from previous genocidal acts led the international community and various historians, then and now, to disregard the geopolitical importance of Bosnia and, by default, the necessity of intervention along two lines: (1) as a means of ensuring stability within Europe, and (2) to avoid another ‘Holocaust’.

It was only toward the end of the Bosnian War that the international community implicitly recognised Bosnia as a victim of genocide. On 10 August 1995, United States ambassador Madeleine Albright stated bluntly: “… these dead were not killed in the heat of battle… they were systematically slaughtered on the instructions of the Bosnian Serb leadership”. It was also toward the end of the war that the international community, particularly politicians in Washington, acknowledged the ineffectiveness of the United Nations mission to protect ‘safe zone’ areas. However, by this time it was too late. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims were ‘vanquished’ and thousands more fled as a result of forced deportation.

Key three mistakes were made by the international community. The first is the failure of the international community to take into consideration the Genocide Convention of 1948 to determine the level of atrocities within Bosnia. Instead of deeming the atrocities as acts of ethnic cleansing from the outset and thereby unimportant, the international community should have taken extra precautions to prevent the possibility of genocide. Second, the international community failed to rid themselves of preconceived notions regarding the Balkan states as being inherently prone to violence. This allowed the international community to deem the Bosnian conflict as one of centuries-old ethnic tensions rather than acknowledging that the VRS actively sought to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ to the expense of the Bosnian Muslim population. Third, the international community failed to take heed of warnings from the media that the atrocities within Bosnia were no longer acts of ethnic cleansing but acts of genocide. Had they done so, ‘safe zone’ areas would have been strictly protected, military personnel would have been increased, and international pressure on the VRS via military means would have prevented, for example, the Srebrenica genocide.

Ultimately, it became clear that the needs of the international community overrode the needs of the Bosnian victims of genocide, which immobilised prospects for effective international intervention. As such, the belief that the Bosnian conflict was one of centuries-old ethnic tensions between ethnically similar albeit religiously different antagonistic groups and did not result from the (geo)political desire of the Serbians to create an ethnically pure ‘Greater Serbia’, deemed Bosnia as being of negligible value to the international community.




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[1] Figures vary in both cases and have become highly contested.


Cover photo: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Credit: Michael Wong/flickr/some rights reserved

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Mirela Ćufurović

Mirela Cufurovic is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies & Civilisation, Charles Sturt University. She is also an Academic Tutor of history and sociology for the Indigenous Tutorial Assistance Scheme at the University of Sydney, and the Assistant Editor for the Journal of Islamic Studies (AJIS). Her research interests include South-Eastern European history, nationalism, public history, and Muslim identity. She is currently undertaking a research project on Australian Muslim youth positive transformations at Charles Sturt University.