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Sample 3

Bosnia between Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide


1. Introduction

The history of former Yugoslavia is the history of ethnic conflict, identity politics, and constantly resurging and most often opposing nationalisms. With Tito’s death in 1980, the ideas of a collective Yugoslav identity and the notion of unifying and absolute Yugoslav federalism withered, paving the way for national re-identification and re-determination of the different nations under the communist tutelage. The externally created Yugoslav identity failed to reconcile the cultural, historic and ethnic differences between the peoples under Tito, and it did not eradicate the old and to a certain extent primordial antagonisms between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Crampton 2002, Malcolm 1996, Holbrooke 1991, Butler 1992).

The political chaos provoked by Tito’s death was a convenient setting for certain people such as Slobodan Milosevic, Dobrica Cosic and other Serbian intellectuals to radicalize and to politically epitomize the old historical tensions between the different ethnic communities, to ‘reinvent’ a new tradition - one of fear, instability and ethnic nationalism. These interethnic attitudes were not previously there, or at least, were buried somewhere in the collective historical memory (Johnson 2001). In the embrace of this reinvented tradition, Yugoslavia was suddenly, in a matter of months, dismembered, with Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia suddenly claiming independence from Belgrade, and, on the other end of the spectrum, the Serbian leadership claiming for the revival of the great Serbian state and the political unification of the Serbs in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia (Cigar 1995, Malcolm 1996). Briefly put, the conflict reached its climax during the Bosnian war (1992-1995), when the bloody clashes between Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Serbs resulted in mass murder and brutal, inconceivable violations of international law from all parties involved.

The major clashes between the ethnic groups in Bosnia, the Muslims, the Serbs and the Croats, are very often labelled in academia and political discourse as genocide or ethnic cleansing, and these terms are used interchangeably. The purpose of this essay is to draw a line between ethnic cleansing and genocide, although a complete and thorough differentiation is almost impossible to make. For clarity, the essay is be divided into several different sections, which will tackle the semantic differences of the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide, their differences as two separate instruments for domination of one ethnic group over the other, and their relation to international law. Finally, some conclusive remarks on the legal preventive mechanism for genocide will be made.


2. Research question

The questions in this essay will be focusing on the difference of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the context of the conflict in Bosnia and will aim to clarify the relation between the two, with genocide being a final, much more deliberate, and not necessarily compulsory phase of ethnic cleansing. In 2007 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has drawn a very clear distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia: “There are obvious similarities between a genocidal policy and the policy commonly known as 'ethnic cleansing' yet '[a] clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide” (ICJ cited by ECHR, 2007).

After a scrutiny of the conflict one inevitably asks questions, such as how is genocide not ethnic cleansing and vice versa, does ethnic cleansing become genocide, and why not all ethnic clashes result in genocide? The need for a clear differentiation between the two terms is dictated by the need for a clear understanding of the roots of the conflict. Very often the false substitution of ethnic cleansing with genocide leads to an obfuscation of the circumstances in which the conflict took place. In reality, the abuse of the term ‘genocide’ in the Bosnian case results in an unnecessary and historically incredulous demonization of the Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims or Croats and falsifies the real nature of the conflict. This does not mean that the leadership of the three ethnic communities did not effectively contribute to one of the most shattering conflicts in the late twentieth century. Yet, the truth is that the common mistake to describe ethnic cleansing as genocide and vice versa oversimplifies the matter and even worse, it obstructs any effort for legal prevention. Therefore, an attempt for separation between the two terms in the case of Bosnia is not only necessary, but simply essential.


3. Ethnic cleansing and genocide – a game of words?

This section will outline the very generic differences between ethnic cleansing and genocide, discussing semantic peculiarities of the two terms. A popular definition is the one provided by Encyclopaedia Britannica, where ethnic cleansing is


[…] the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups. Ethnic cleansing sometimes involves the removal of all physical vestiges of the targeted group through the destruction of monuments, cemeteries, and houses of worship[…] (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2010).


This is a soft definition of the term ethnic cleansing, which does not imply any deliberation. In 1993 the United Nations defined it more specifically as, "the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous” (UN 1993). The second definition reveals a certain level of deliberation and intentional preparation. There is no doubt that what happened in Bosnia in the early 1990s was ethnic cleansing and it involved the psychological and political abuse of a certain ethnic group by another. In this sense, ethnic cleansing is more similar to population transfer than genocide (Hayden 1996). What happened in Bosnia falls under this category, with the Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims respectively attempting to establish ethnically homogenous political entities on the territory of the country.

As far as genocide is concerned, it is defined in the 1948 Genocide Convention as


[…] any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (UN 1948).


It is easy to draw a clear distinction between the two terms, where genocide necessitates the destruction of a certain ethnic group and ethnic cleansing involves the transfer (often coercive) of this group from a certain territory. The only act of genocide during the war in Bosnia for which the ICJ convicted Serbia was the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, where the Yugoslavian National Army, instructed by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, intentionally murdered thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

If, from a semantic perspective the two terms are so easily distinguishable, why are they then often used interchangeably in the Bosnian context? Probably because ethnic violence is rarely a question of pure semantics. Norman Cigar, an observer in the field, gives one explanation, arguing that the line between ethnic cleansing and genocide is difficult to discern in areas with turbulent history and kaleidoscopic ethnic landscape. Cigar holds that ethnic cleansing was legitimized by the Serbian authorities to the extent that it became, or transformed itself, into genocide (Cigar 1995 p.11-86). He even goes further, describing different stages of legitimization of the ‘cleansing process’, culminating in a final and irreversible stage, when genocidal policies occur. Cigar implies that genocide was the ultimate and logic outcome of a meticulously prepared and rationally implemented policy of ethnic cleansing, “with the Serbian decision-makers apparently weighing the benefits and costs carefully throughout the process” (Cigar, p.63). Cigar argues that at a certain point the political discourse in Serbia and Bosnia became so well adapted to ethnic cleansing and genocide, that the two became spatially and temporally conflated, and the chance to say when one ended and the other one began was almost minimal. There are some weaknesses in Cigar’s theory, stemming from the fact that his observation was made only in favour of the Bosnian Muslims, excluding the possibility for ethnic cleansing or genocide performed against the Serbs.

Scholars like Robert Hayden totally reject the possibility of any fusion between genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, with ethnic cleansing resulting only in population transfers, often not necessarily provoked by aggression from the other ethnic group (Hayden 1996). The middle ground between Hayden and Cigar’s observations comes from Leo Kuper and Robert Melson, who argue that what happened in Yugoslavia was ‘genocidal massacre’ in contrast to ‘total domestic genocide’ (Kuper 1982, Melson 1992). Others, like Dr. Milan Bulajic, president of the Foundation for the Research of Genocide, deny that the Serbs committed genocide at all, claiming that the Bosnian Muslims deliberately sacrificed their own (Milan Bulajic in an interview for Petar Pasic 2005).

One similarity between the two is striking – both ethnic cleansing and genocide aim to homogenize a certain territory, and to forcefully ‘un-mix’ already mixed populations (Fialkoff 1993). In other words, genocide and ethnic cleansing have the same goals, but use different means – a differentiation, which will be discussed in the next section.


4. The policy of ethnic cleansing versus the weapon of genocide

The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the genocide in Srebrenica were both coercive mechanisms for the domination of one ethnic group over the other. The means that they deployed however were thoroughly different. Cigar implies that ethnic cleansing is a policy, in the sense that it operates only within the realms of government policy-making and needs political, as well as social legitimization (Cigar 1995). Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was a prolonged process, which developed in several phases, with a historical predicament strongly influencing the establishment of ethnic cleansing as a policy. In Bosnia ethnic cleansing was institutionalized, and finally articulated as a coercive strategy. It took the form of intimidation, public humiliation and sometimes physical abuse of the Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs.

Just like ethnic cleansing, genocide is a state policy, and it is entirely and completely implemented by the state (Midlarsky 2005). However, it is also a weapon, an instrument for a quick and effective destruction. The fact that the level of destruction caused by genocide is often higher than in the case of ethnic cleansing does not mean that genocide has no preparatory phase. As Midlarsky argues, the preliminary historical setting is more important a factor for genocide than the sole element of deliberation and intention (Midlarsky 2005). Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch identifies eight stages of genocide – classification, when certain divisions in a multiethnic society occur or resurface; symbolization; dehumanization, when one group dehumanizes another; organization; polarization, which includes propaganda; preparation, when victims are identified; extermination and denial (Stanton 1996). In this sense genocide is more goal-oriented than ethnic cleansing, which is more of a process and policy, rather than a real instrument for destruction, but this does not mean that ethnic cleansing cannot become genocide.

Bosnia was no exception from the above observations. The ethnic cleansing that happened was disguised as a state policy, and its political articulation and exposition transformed it into a discourse. Later on, the 1995 Srebrenica genocide stood as the hermetized, accelerated finale of a prolonged, legitimate and wittily disguised policy of ethnic cleansing. According to Midlarsky’s classification however, the Srebrenica massacre falls under the category of ‘genocidal behaviour’ rather than genocide, since the Serbs did not aim to eradicate the whole of the Bosnian Muslims in the region, although they murdered a significant proportion of them (Midlarsky 2005). However, whether there was genocide in Bosnia or no is a topic for a different research. As it has already been implied, the two terms are different not only in meaning, but also in terms of means deployed by them. One last level of analysis will be presented in the next section, which focuses on the relation between ethnic cleansing, genocide and international law.


5. Conclusion: Ethnic cleansing, genocide and the future of international law

Both ethnic cleansing and genocide are violations of international law, and both are defined as crimes against humanity in the statues of ICJ and ICTY (Dixon 2007, Waters 2006, Lambrichs 2008). The question that this section of the paper raises is are there effective legal mechanisms for the prevention of genocide and ethnic cleansing? Could the ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian Muslims and the genocide in Srebrenica have been legally prevented by the international community? The answer that scholars such as Waters (2006) and Lambrichs (2008) give is ‘no’. Despite the huge amount of judicial activity o

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