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Bosnia and Herzegovina

Beginning with the staff observation of the first multi-party elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina in November 1990, the Helsinki Commission has consistently been the most active body in the U.S. Congress in terms of following developments in that country and advocating policy responses. 

The first Congressional Delegation visit organized by the Commission took place in 1991, more than a year before the Bosnian conflict began. On several occasions, Helsinki Commissioners traveled on the military airlift providing humanitarian aid to Sarajevo during the course of the 1992-95 conflict, and several delegations traveling to neighboring countries like Croatia, Romania and Macedonia were undertaken to meet with Bosnian refugees, assess the potential for conflict spillover, and encourage compliance with internationally imposed sanctions on Milosevic’s Serbia. 

The aggression and ethnic cleansing which took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 – and the war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide which defined those policies – remain the most severe violations of OSCE principles in a participating State since the Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975.  The Helsinki Commission documented the atrocities and abuses through regular congressional hearings and briefings and used these fora as well as correspondence, press conferences, meetings with senior Administration officials and legislation to discuss and advocate policy responses.   

Beyond the initial efforts to merely contain the conflict, Helsinki Commissioners pressed U.S. leadership for decisive efforts to stop it, including the use of NATO assets to end the siege of Sarajevo and protect UN-designated safe havens, as well as to lift the arms embargo imposed on Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other Commission responses included early and active support for the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to hold those responsible for atrocities to account, increased efforts to provide humanitarian aid, the greater acceptance of Bosnian refugees into the United States and the secondment of Commission staff to an OSCE spillover prevention mission.

The Dayton Agreement of November 1995 ended the Bosnian conflict. While concerned about some of the compromises made in Dayton for the sake of securing peace, the Commission continued a high-level of public activity to ensure that the core element of the agreement – Bosnia-Herzegovina as a viable state with its sovereignty and territorial integrity respected by its neighbors and with its citizens able to return to the country and their homes to begin the process of rebuilding, recovery and reconciliation – would be realized and sustained. The Commission focused particularly on the conduct of post-Dayton elections, including through their observation, assistance for democratic forces and independent institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, protections for displaced persons returning to areas where they now found themselves as highly vulnerable ethnic minorities, the exhumation of mass graves for the sake of criminal prosecution and ascertaining the fate of missing persons, and cooperation with the international tribunal by all states concerned. These efforts continue to this day. 

New issues have also arisen, including the commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide, Bosnian aspirations to join NATO and the European Union, and the development of more effective government and adoption of constitutional reform measures that are necessary to make that happen. Helsinki Commissioners continue to press for continued U.S. engagement and international vigilance, including through continued legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress, to ensure the country completes the reform process and is integrated into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions along with its neighbors.

A 2009 visit was the latest formal Commission visit to the country and actively sought to encourage political reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina has demonstrated the capacity to implement reasonably free and fair elections, Commission staff continues to observe the electoral process, most recently in October 2014.

Staff Contact: Bob Hand, senior policy advisor

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  • Banja Luka-Ethnic Cleansing Paradigm

    Samuel Wise, international policy director of the Commission, addressed the political setting in Bosnia before elections in 1995 and the possibility of having a free and fair environment, especially in regards to human rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The briefing focused on Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is located in the northwest. Since the beginning of the Bosnian conflict, the city was firmly in the hands of the Bosnian Serb rebels until the Dayton Accords placed the city in the Republika Srpska, the newly created Serbian republic. The city and the region surrounding it had a significant non-Serb population (Bosniacs or Muslim Slavs, Croats, Ukrainians, and ethnically mixed Yugoslavs), which was ethnically cleansed on behalf of the Serbian government. While some instances of ethnic cleansing there took the form of subtle measures, the most notorious concentration camps, including Omarska, were in the Banja Luka region. The witnesses – Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka  Franjo Komarica,  Obrad Kesic from the International Research and Exchanges Board, and Diane Paul, a nurse from Baltimore – discussed the city as a scene of apparent differences among Serb political activists with highly divergent points of view. They emphasized that Bosnia’s future hinged on whether moderates or radicals won in the elections in that region.

  • The Latest Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    With Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presiding, this hearing focused on the continuing ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. This hearing was held with the events of the two weeks that preceded it in mind. More specifically, militants from Serbia had attacked UN outposts and, subsequently, had taken peacekeepers hostage.  In spite of the atrocities being committed against the Bosnian people, Rep. Smith stated that the international community viewed the conflict in Bosnia as more of a crisis than the Bosnians themselves. Unfortunately, though, as this hearing sought to address, the international community could have better responded to the crisis in the former Yugoslav country. As a witness, Dr. Haris Silajdzic was also in attendance.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

  • The United Nations, NATO and the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on policy questions related to United Nations efforts and coordinated assistance from NATO in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. The hearing reviewed a historical timeline of the events and atrocities associated with the war. The hearing covered the issue of genocide and the actions in which the United States ought to respond. In relation to the war, the hearing touched based on the effectiveness of the Bosnian arms embargo and whether its intended approached has alleviated the conflict in any matter. The witnesses and the Commissioners touched on the logistical difficulties faced by the United Nations and what the general perspective and desires of the local population.

  • Genocide in Bosnia

    This hearing focused on determinig if the recent ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural sites, and war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia constituted genocide.  In particular, the witnesses and Commissioners discussed  how many of the war crimes were committed on orders from the military and the political leadership.

  • The Crisis in Chechnya

    This hearing discussed the human right violations conducted by the Russian government against the civilians of the Chechen Republic. The horrendous human rights violations, the war in Chechnya brought to the fore all the underlying fissures in Russia’s political and economic structures, as well as highlighted the tensions in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the rest of the international community. Chechnya confronted Russia’s Government, and by extension, all OSCE governments with the key issue of self-determination. Though Principle VIII of the Helsinki Final Act guarantees the equal right of all peoples to self-determination, the international community has never worked out rules and mechanisms for pursuing that right. Since many countries face actual or potential separatist movements based on demands for self-determination, governments have tended to side-step the issue.

  • U.S. HELSINKI COMMISSION DELEGATION TO BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

    The Commission delegation travelled to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo to assess the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the third winter of the conflict in that country approached. Specifically, the delegation was interested in local observations of the prospects for peace, international policies to enhance those prospects quickly and effectively, and the continuing humanitarian crisis that continues in the meantime. These objectives were part of a larger Commission effort to document the tragic events which had transpired in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of the former Yugoslavia since that federation began its violent disintegration, and to raise public awareness of the severe violations of CSCE principles and provisions that resulted. Following its visit to Sarajevo, the Commission delegation travelled to Albania at the invitation of President Sali Berisha. The visit offered the opportunity for the Commission to observe firsthand the vast changes which had taken place in Albania since the elections of 1992, which ousted the communists from power after nearly 50 years of ruthless repression and isolation. It also was intended to show support for Albania during a time of crisis and conflict in the Balkans and, at the same time, to encourage Albania to make continued progress and avoid making mistakes which could damage Albania's image abroad. During the last stop on the trip, the delegation visited Turkey to examine issues of mutual concern to the United States and Turkey, including human rights issues, the Kurdish situation, conflict in the Balkans and the Middle East peace process.  

  • Bosnia’s Second Winter Siege

    After two years of genocide and starvation and despite the best efforts of appeasement from Western Europe and the United States, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina won’t go away. It won’t go away because, despite overwhelming odds, the victims have refused to surrender to the forces of genocide and territorial aggression. A robust discussion on the Bosnia-Herzegovina policies the United States should implement will ensue.

  • Bosnia’s Second Winter Siege

    After two years of genocide and starvation and despite the best efforts of Western Europe and the United States, the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has not ended. A robust discussion on the best policies toward Bosnia-Herzegovina the United States should implement will ensue.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA - PART 3

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.The hearing concludes with possible U.S. responses with findings and reports to support prospective actions.

  • THE FATE OF THE PEOPLE OF BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA- PART 2

    President of Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corp, Frederick Cuny, and former special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, José Maria Mendiluce, gave testimony in front of the U.S. Helsinki Commission in regards to the civilian populations of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their testimony, each witness covered the humanitarian efforts on the ground and its effects on the civilian population, obstacles created by the mafia, and the effects of the Bosnian arms embargo. Also the Commissioners and witnesses discussed the different perspectives of sanction use- employ sanctions to deter the foreign government to follow a desired goal or that the use of such particular sanctions only adds fuel to the survival of the regime via nationalism.

  • CSCE Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues

    Against a backdrop of savage conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno Karabakh, and Georgia, attendant refugee crises throughout the region, and a wave of sometimes violent racism and xenophobia even in long-established European democracies, the participating states of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Warsaw, Poland in 1993 for the first biannual Implementation Meeting on Human Dimension Issues As specified by the 1992 Helsinki Document, the meeting included a thorough exchange of views on the implementation of Human Dimension commitments, consideration of ways and means of improving implementation, and an evaluation of the procedures for monitoring compliance with commitments. The dramatic unfolding over the course of the meeting of the showdown within the Russian government-- culminating in the shelling of the Russian Parliament building by government troops-- served as a sober reminder to participants of the vulnerability of democracy in transition and the importance of shoring up Human Dimension compliance.

  • The Yugoslavia Conflict: Potential for Spillover in the Balkans

    This hearing reviewed the potential for spillover in the Yugoslav conflict. In particular, the hearing examined the aggression in Bosnia- Herzegovina and the possible effects of this on its own ethnic communities and on those of neighboring countries. The economic decline that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia provided additional hardships for the large refugee population in the region. The Commissioners examined how the U.S. should respond, and whether current policies, such as sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, are effective.

  • Human Rights Policy Under the New Administration

    The purpose of this hearing was to examine the euphoria of the post-Cold War age in regards to the lack of confidence and political drive on how to promote commitments made in the Charter of Paris agreement. The hearing reviewed the actions made in the Balkans and Serbia’s continual territorial aggression and also developed democratic countries selectively applying human right policies. The Commissioners stressed the need for continual assistance to democratically developing countries, but to those countries that disrespect universal human rights should have additional pressures applied to change this behavior. The distinguished witnesses and Commissioners discussed ways in which the U.S. can help play a role in strengthening the United Nation’s ability to promote and protect human rights, as well as how the U.S. could use greater use of regional bodies similar the CSCE in conflict resolution.

  • War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes and providing humanitarian relief. In particular, the hearing looked into systemic rape and forced impregnation in the former Yugoslavia. The hearing also largely focused on what measures the U.S. should adopt to assist communities and women affected by gender violence from the conflict. In addition, the Commissioners and witnesses discussed measures to prosecute individuals guilty of war crimes and how to address the refugee crisis.

  • The Crisis In Bosnia-Herzegovina

    Sen. Dennis DeConcini presided over this hearing that was held with the state of violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mind. The unfortunate former Yugoslavian country had just emerged from a bloody internecine conflict, which resulted in thousands of refugees. The purpose of this hearing was to discuss post-conflict negotiations, and yet, unfortunately, violence started again and escalated after the civil war earlier in the 1990s. The Commissioners, then, asked how the U.S., UN, European Community, and other individual actors, which had been criticized for inaction regarding the crisis, should respond.

  • War Crimes and the Humanitarian Crisis in the Former Yugoslavia

    This hearing focused on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and the international community’s commitment to prosecuting those guilty of war crimes. Confidence and security building measures, in relation to the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina were discussed, as well as the stability of the multi-ethnic layering of the newly formed countries. The hearing also focused on possible U.S. measures to improve regional stability and to relocate displaced persons. Such measures included disbanding the arms embargo on Bosnia and improving economic conditions for the millions affected by the conflict.

  • The Yugoslav Republics: Prospects for Peace and Human Rights

    This hearing reviewed the political crisis and the civil conflict in Yugoslavia. The purpose was to examine the different aspects in which is fueling the crisis. The hearing looked at the role of the OSCE process in its efforts to shape the international strength in resolving the Yugoslav conflict. Representatives from the European community gave testimony on the proposals and plan implementation carried out by the European Council and of the member states. The issue of military hardware and tensions related to large mobilized forces were mentioned, along with the peace settlement dimension for the succeeding states of Yugoslavia.

  • The Conflict in Yugoslavia

    The purpose of this hearing was to bring greater clarity to the situation in Yugoslavia and to discuss the effectiveness of the international response to date, especially in the CSCE, and how that response could be made more effective. The hearing witnesses, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Canadian Affairs Ralph Johnson and Director of East European Studies at the Wilson Center Dr. John Lampe, gave astute assesments of the situation in the region and commented on policy options before the Congressmembers.

  • Congressional Delegation Visit to Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria

    The Commission delegation to Yugoslavia had three main goals: (1) to observe the first, free, multi-party elections in post-War Yugoslavia, which took place in Slovenia on April 8; (2) to discuss a variety of human rights concerns; and (3) to examine firsthand the situation in Kosovo province by meeting with both Serbian and Albanian groups. The delegation visited the cities of Ljubljana, Belgrade and Pristina, and Chairman DeConcini made a separate visit to the village of Medjugorje. Meetings were held with federal, republic and provincial officials, as well as with human rights activists, religious figures, representatives of alternative groups and parties, journalists, and other private individuals. Overall, the delegation was able to accomplish these objectives. Moreover, its efforts were immediately followed by several positive developments in Yugoslavia, including the lifting of the state of emergency in Kosovo and the announced release of 108 political prisoners, including Adem Demaqi, a political prisoner with whom the delegation had sought to meet. In addition, the members of the Youth Parliament of Kosovo detained just prior to the Commission's visit were released, and former Kosovo official Azem Vlasi was acquitted in a major political trial. All of these developments addressed concerns specifically raised by the delegation during its visit.

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