Ongoing Ethnic Tensions in Bosnia and Rwanda: A Comparative Study

Updated: Dec 21, 2019

Zachary Winkler

About 20 years ago, Central and Eastern Europe was in turmoil. In 1992, Bosnian independence was declared by referendum. However, the newly-formed state was rife with ethnic diversity and tension, stemming from differences in religious belief. The young state quickly devolved into civil war with fighting erupting from ethnic Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian classes of the population. Meanwhile, 3200 miles away, an ethnic conflict brewed in Rwanda, between Hutus and Tutsis, growing fiercer by the day. Both cases include comparable instances of ethnic cleansing stemming from a struggle for power.

President of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik casts his vote (September 25, 2016)

Bosnia today sits near the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. It does not control the coastline, however, as Croatia maintains control of that territory. Its eastern border is shared with Serbia and Montenegro. The four countries, which developed as a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, share very little except for similar Cyrillic languages. With regard to ethnic groups, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians identify as distinct segments of the population despite their geographic similarities.

In the early 1990s, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, satellite states like Yugoslavia began to dissolve in their own right. However, the Yugoslav dissolution was not always peaceful. In Bosnia, conflicts between ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims resulted in hostility, as the Serbs, determined to remain a part of Yugoslavia received an outpouring of support from extremist Yugoslavs in Belgrade. While Serbs attacked Bosnians and Croats, the latter engaged as well, escalating the conflict to proportions unseen in Europe for 50 years. This ethno-national identity difference was the main cause of the Bosnian War, and remains an ongoing source of tension in the region.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “ethnicity” is defined as the “state of belonging to a social group that has common national or cultural tradition” (OED 2013). This definition can be used to refer to national identities within cultural sects of a population. In the case of Bosnia, the major ethnicities are Serb and Bosniak. Serbs, predominately Orthodox Christians, dominate the interior perimeter of Bosnia. The Dayton Agreement ensured that Bosnia was split into two political entities, accordingly: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, abbreviated FBH, and The Republika Srpska. While Bosnia today is politically divided in a reasonably peaceful manner, getting to that point was a matter of serious contention before the Dayton Agreement was signed.

On July 10, 1995, the city of Srebrenica, a United Nations-created division for those seeking refuge from the Bosnian War, came under siege from the Bosnian Serb Army. This army was under the direction of Radovan Karadzic, first president of the Republika Srpska. Karadzic perpetrated a massacre of “more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys” in a form of ethnic cleansing over “several days” (European Parliament). In Rwanda, the political elite Hutus organized a massacre using the Rwandan Army and National Police to kill 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, over a span of 100 days from April 7, 1994 until July (BBC). However, despite the obvious difference in size of the genocides, the fact does not change that these were politically motivated acts of aggression.


Coffins containing the remains of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Bosnian ethnic issue stemmed from a difference in religion and national identity. However, these identities all come from an antiquated sense of regionalism. The northern Serbs and western Croats each sought to annex a part of Bosnian territory to claim for their own fledgling nations. The clash between sovereignty and ethnicity created an intense conflict in Bosnia as nationalist groups pursued statehood (Berg & Shoup, 1999). Whereas Bosnians tend to be Muslims, Serbs are Orthodox Christians, and Croats are Catholics. As Yugoslavia disintegrated and order ceased, the ethnic classes resorted to their main distinguishing characteristics: region and religion.

Meanwhile, the Rwandan case has overtones of national identity, as European colonizers in the nineteenth century believed the Tutsis to be of Ethiopian descent, and the Hutu to be native Rwandan. The Tutsi were the favored class for the European colonizers, as they were seen to be almost Caucasian, as compared to the decidedly-African Hutu (Clark 2011). For decades, the Tutsi lived a more privileged life, but after the colonial powers deserted Rwanda, the Hutu majority began a revolution, seeking power. The Rwandan genocide came to a head over a power struggle with nationalist origins, as the immigrant Tutsis fled Rwanda for refuge in Zaire (then: Democratic Republic of Congo). Both the Hutus in Rwanda and the Serbs in Bosnia employed ethnic cleansing as a means to gaining power.

The key component to this essay, however, is what remains in both Bosnia and Rwanda, 20 years removed from the genocidal crises that gripped these states. In both cases, the perpetrating party vehemently denies any wrongdoing. In Rwanda, “most of [the Hutu] deny the genocide ever happened, or insist that they, the Hutu, were its victims” (Prunier 2005). Similarly, in Bosnia, Karadzic said “that “Serb people have nothing to be ashamed of” and that their army “did not commit a single crime, rape or attack against civilians”.” (Sadovic 2009). While this is an extreme example, coming from the mastermind of the attack, the consensus among Bosnian Serbs is that the reports about Srebrenica were falsified or exaggerated (Sadovic 2009). While denial is nothing new in the psychological realm, it is criminalized in some states with histories of genocide. In Germany, Criminal Code Section 130 includes text, which, translated into English, states that “whomever publicly or in a meeting approves of, denies or belittles an act committed under the rule of National Socialism… shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than five years or a fine” (§ 130 Volksverhetzung).

Since the mid-1990s, the genocidal violence in Bosnia and Rwanda has come to an end. However, this does not eliminate the ethnic tensions that still remain in each region. Trials have been conducted in the Bosnia case, or are still underway. However, the testimony in these cases has helped to highlight the remaining ethnic tension. Bosnian Muslim leader Naser Oric stood trial for his role in the Bosnian War in 2005, but Serb witnesses who testified at the trial were dodgy at best and offensive at worst. Dragomir Miladinovic, a witness for the prosecution, described invading looters in his village as Turks, “a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims which he continued to employ throughout his testimony” (Sadovic 2005). While the Islamic heritage in Bosnia does have Ottoman roots, calling Bosnian Muslims “Turks” is insensitive, and only used as a means of undermining Bosnian nationalism as a whole.

The Dayton Agreement was signed in 1995, and while it brought an end to the majority of violence in Bosnia, it did not successfully end the ethnic strife that still grips the region. Part of the Dayton Agreement established Republika Srpska as a separate political entity from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to appease the antagonizing Serbs and facilitate a peaceful resolution. While the agreement allowed for some annexation of Bosnian-claimed territory by majority-Serb groups, it ended the Bosnian War in name, only. True, genocidal activities ceased, but the power struggle and territorial battles continued, and conflict still remains.

According to Chaim Kaufmann, ethnic wars only have positive outcomes when the two sides are able to lead separate communities (Kaufmann 1996, 139). This statement would point to the Dayton Agreement, separating Bosnia into two sovereign domains, being wildly successful. However, the Dayton Agreement, like any treaty, left parties unhappy. While Bosnians and Serbs each received sovereign territories, the Croats did not have any land grants from the agreement. Meanwhile, disputed territories like the Brcko district in northeastern Bosnia was left ambiguous in the discussions. Bosnians reacted negatively to the “Human Rights” section, Annex 6 of the agreement. Article I lays out a list of declarations of human rights, including “The right to life… The rights to liberty and security of person… Freedom of thought, conscience and religion” (Dayton Agreement 1995, Annex 6 Article I). Notwithstanding these enumerated rights for the new state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was no mention of human rights violations, nor any mention of the Srebrenica massacre. Despite signing an agreement that would lay the framework for potential peace, key missing components prevented the Dayton Agreement from completely fulfilling its lofty goals.


News headline stating “Rwanda Wracked by Ethnic Violence”

With regard to Rwanda, no such treaty ever came about. The ethnic war there ended with another of Kaufmann’s proposed outcomes: Unilateral domination (Kaufmann 1996, 139). While peace agreements never materialized between Hutu and Tutsi, the fighting did come to a halt, but only following the completion of an ethnic cleansing of nearly 1,000,000 Tutsi. The ethnic tensions in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, the region Rwanda calls home, are still at peak levels, even 20 years later. The only mitigating factor is human migration. And yet, despite a lack of population to fuel the conflict, the tensions migrate with the Tutsi, now at fever pitch in the Democratic Republic of Congo, once thought to be a refuge from the Rwandan genocide.

Now, 20 years later, Radovan Karadzic is standing trial for his role in organizing the Srebrenica massacre at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal. Karadzic had been living as a fugitive before his arrest, having dodged judgment for well over a decade. Meanwhile, implicated Rwandans have stood, are standing, or will stand trial at a similar international criminal tribunal on more local soil. Both Karadzic and Rwandans including Jerome Bicamumpaka, a foreign relations minister during the Rwandan Civil War, were indicted on charges including conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, and complicity in genocide. While Karadzic awaits judgment, the United Nations is actively working to rectify the damage of the genocide through punishment. However, in the Rwandan case, senior officials who lead the government during the genocide have been acquitted of charges, reuniting with their families 12 years after their arrests. Attempts at serving justice are falling significantly short in the post-war tribunals.

As this paper goes to print, Bosnia remains a country divided. The Republika Srpska, while not recognized as a separate country, maintains a sovereign regional government. Until 2006, the region claimed its own defense ministry and armed forces, however it disbanded the force in order to allow for Bosnia and Herzegovina to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Meanwhile, Bosnia fits the profile of a decentralized state, as the Republika Srpska is able to negotiate its own trade agreements, politics, and foreign relations.

Bosnia is a nation on the brink. According to an article published in Foreign Affairs, “As successful as Dayton was at ending the violence, it also sowed the seeds of instability by creating a decentralized political system that undermined the state’s authority” (McMahon & Western 2009). In fact, Bosnia has been unable to properly develop to the expectations of a European nation in the past decade, lagging behind other “developing European nations” with regard to GDP growth and poverty. Despite a recovering global economy, Bosnia remains stagnant, with GDP growth near 1 percent annually (World Bank). This failure to thrive has been caused primarily by the more pressing issues of maintaining the state, as leaders from the Republika Srpska openly threaten secession with increasing frequency.


UN peacekeepers in Rwanda

Bosnia was once the uncontested favorite to thrive after the fall of Yugoslavia. After the violence ended, “NGOS descended on Sarajevo and became deeply involved in stitching Bosnia back together” (McMahon & Western 2009). With hyper-involved external forces, Bosnia was to be considered the safe bet for the future. But as ethnic tensions remained and grew stronger, holding Bosnia together was no easy task. The regional leaders are ethnic leaders, representing only the ideals of their ethnicity, without regard for the impact on other regions. Republika Srpska has founded special relationships with Serbia exclusive of the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meanwhile, the “central government” in Sarajevo is unable to do the same for itself, as Republika Srpska is officially a part of Bosnia.

Meanwhile, Central Africa as a whole remains a quagmire of ethnic strain. Since the 1994 genocide, Rwanda remains almost entirely Hutu, having driven the Tutsi into fear of returning to their former home. The main argument for Rwanda is a move toward democratization to provide stability, removing potential warlords from power, establishing the country as a place where genocide will not recur. Democratization is the only way to prevent a perception of “unilateral policies imposed by the ‘victors’ of the war, and implemented on their own terms” (Silva-Leander 2008). While democracy is widely considered the ideal form of government, increased government transparency would be the first step in improving the Rwandan crisis and helping the region to repair itself.

The Bosnian case is one of multiple dimensions. As has been found in Eastern Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, newfound states struggle to find a singular identity. However, in Bosnia, the issue runs deeper, straddling a line of ethnic tension and strife from century-old wars. In Rwanda, the conflicts stem from ethnic differences imposed, presumed, and discriminated against for centuries. While the two countries could not be more dissimilar in many aspects, they are incredibly alike in that their ethnopolitics remain today, deepening the rifts between sects of population.

In Rwanda, though the near-constant warring, which marked the past two decades, has come to an end, the strain of significant ethnic barriers remains. The departure of the Tutsis for neighboring countries in order to flee discrimination in the land that they had called home hearkens to the way in which Bosnian Muslims fled Croat controlled lands in favor of refugee camps in towns like Srebrenica. In a similar way, despite fleeing for safety, the danger of ethnic tension followed the ethnic groups, as Tutsis face discrimination and violence today from the Hutus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Bosnian Muslims who fled for Srebrenica faced massacre at the hands of Serbs.

Meanwhile, both of these genocides and the aftermath, which is still to be sifted through, could have been mitigated by international intervention. In both the Bosnian and Rwandan cases, the United Nations passed resolutions condemning the genocidal actions and the ethnic discrimination taking place. However, a lack of treaty-based alliances kept foreign nations from feeling compelled to intervene. The genocidal activity escalated as a result of being left unchecked for a significant period of time by the international community. In order to prevent future genocides and to repair the damage that has been caused, international intervention is necessary. The United Nations holds the criminal tribunal for genocidal activities, but further involvement in the rebuilding efforts, and not just in condemnation are called for in these stricken regions of the world, recovering from the brink.


Works Cited

BBC. “Rwanda: How the genocide happened.” BBC News. (accessed April 1, 2014).

Burg, Steven L., and Paul Shoup. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnic conflict and international intervention. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1999.

Clark, Janine Natalya. “Between Theory and Practice: Conflict Resolution in Rwanda.” Ethnopolitics 10 (2011): 2-28. (accessed April 11, 2014).

“Definition of ethnicity in English.” Oxford dictionary (American English) (US). (accessed April 4, 2014).

Kaufmann, Chaim. “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars.” International Security 20, no. 4 (1996): 136. (accessed April 6, 2014).

McMahon, Patrice C., and Jon Western. “The Death of Dayton.” foreign affairs 88, no. 5 (2009): 69-83.

Resolution on Srebrenica.” Texts Adopted by the European Parliament. (accessed April 10, 2014).

Prunier, Gérard. The Rwanda crisis: history of a genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Sadovic, Merdijana. “Inconsistencies Mar Oric Trial.” Institute for War and Peace Reporting. (accessed April 14, 2014).

Sadovic, Merdijana. “Collective Denial: Serbs and the War in Bosnia.” At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries 57 (2009): 81-90.

Silva-Leander, Sebastian. “On The Danger And Necessity Of Democratisation: Trade-offs Between Short-term Stability And Long-term Peace In Post-genocide Rwanda.” Third World Quarterly 29, no. 8 (2008): 1601-1620. (accessed April 12, 2014).

Smith, R.. “Srebrenica massacre (Bosnian history).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (accessed April 16, 2014).

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Rwanda genocide of 1994.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. (accessed March 22, 2014).

“The General Framework Agreement: Annex 6.” The General Framework Agreement: Annex 6. (accessed April 18, 2014).

BBC. “Timeline: Break-Up of Yugoslavia.” BBC News. (accessed April 1, 2014).

World Bank. “Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Data. (accessed April 16, 2014).

Bundesministerium der Justiz. “Strafgesetzbuch (StGB) § 130 Volksverhetzung.” Ministerium. (accessed April 11, 2014).

#genocidestudies #globalhistory #UnitedNations #Africanhistory #Europeanhistory

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