After Tito’s death in 1980 and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, the region was shaken by a bloody civil war, which began in 1992 and ended in 1996. The conflict, which heavily involved the civilian population, highlighted the pre-existing tensions between the newly formed republics (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) which were led by strong nationalist rhetoric, among which Serbia, led by President Milošević, stands out. This war has upset post-Cold War Europe, leaving it powerless for a long time and shocked the entire international community, especially when the brutality of the conflict and the reappearance of concentration camps became public knowledge.

After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, in December 1991 the European Community (EC; later replaced by the European Union) recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia. Subsequently, Bosnia and Herzegovina also prepared to follow their example, under the advice of the EC, but the process was severely hindered by the Serbian population living in the country. 

The Bosnian independence declaration triggered, however, the response of the Serbian para-military militias (combined with some units of the Yugoslav army), which began to attack Bosnian cities heavily populated by Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks). The war continued until 1995 without the United Nations intervening militarily, except through the UN protection forces (UNPROFOR) for humanitarian support. Only after the Srebrenica massacre in July of the same year, NATO began to bomb Serbia. The conflict ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreements in 1996 between Alija Izetbegović, Franjo Tuđman, and Slobodan Milošević. 

Given the cruelty of the conflict and the scale of the violence perpetrated, in 1993 the International Community, by means of UN Security Council Resolution 827, created the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to punish the crimes committed by all the factions involved on Yugoslav territory since 1991. Moreover, as claimed by the Security council, it should serve as a peacekeeper in an area still in warfare.

What made ICTY history were three names appear on the list of 90 defendants from the Tribunal: Kunarac, Kovač and Vuković, convicted in 2001. The case in which they were involved, commonly called “Kunarac case”, concerning mass rapes in the so-called “rape camps”. The three men, convicted for 28, 20 and 12 years respectively, were the first to be condemned for rape as a violation of the laws or customs of war and as a crime against humanity.

In this regard, it is interesting to mention that, within the national legal system, sexual violence perpetrated by soldiers in war has been prohibited since the Middle Ages, as exemplified by Richard II’s code in 1385 and Henry V’s code in 1419, in both of which punishable by death. However, the crime remained common in war and scarcely sanctioned. New mention of rape as a capital offense dates back to Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The American president asked the jurist F. Lieber to write a code for the Union Forces, thereby they would know how to behave during the civil war that was raging in those years. Regarding sexual violence as a crime against humanity, it would have to wait until 1946, after the brutalities committed in the Second World War. Some sentences involving sexual offenses were issued by the Court of Tokyo (especially after the Nanjing Massacre of 1938), but only ever in conjunction with other crimes.

It is only in 1995, within the ICTY context, that the first accusation of rape as a crime against humanity was made against Tadić, for having raped a Muslim girl. The charge was dropped before being formalized due to the disappearance of the key witness. For this reason, the Kunarac case was the first instance in which there was a conviction for rape as a crime against humanity.

The case, also known as ” rape camp case”, highlighted other aberrant traits of the sexual violence committed during the wars of the 1990s: the role of the authorities and the systematic nature of the rapes. With regard to the former, it has been proven that, under the control of the Serbs, they decided to voluntarily ignore the suffering to which civilians were subjected. With regard to the methodical way of the violence, although there is no evidence of a “concerted approach or an order” directed directly at the soldiers to rape Muslim women, there can be no denying a general awareness of the high charges of what happened to the victims. The proven existence of the so-called “rape camps” confirms their systematic nature. These spaces, the most famous of which was in the Foča region, although improvised, were the theatre where the worst violence against the Bosniak women took place. Rape camps are part of the largest network of concentration camps scattered throughout Bosnia, where men, women, and children suffered the worst tortures. 

One of the primary objectives of these structures is what is called “forced impregnation”, i.e. rape with the aim of rendering the victim pregnant. Behind this form of torture, there are both ideological and political motivations. Women, often Muslim and regardless of age, were captured during military raids and transported to rape camps, where they were sexually assaulted repeatedly until they became pregnant. They were often held within the structures until it became impossible for them to have an abortion. 

According to estimates by the United Nations, between 20,000 and 50,000 people were raped during the Bosnian war, belonging to all ethnic groups. Today, more than two decades later, survivors are still suffering. For 20 years, in fact, governments have turned a blind eye to the problem of wartime sexual violence.

Since the first official accusation of sexual violence as a crime against humanity in 1995, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Croatian parliament passed the first law in the country that recognises rape as a war crime – the Law on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence during the Military Aggression against the Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War. The same year the state started to provide legal status recognition for victims of sexual violence in war, following the line of Bosnia and Herzegovina where the recognition took place in 2006 after a big media campaign. Having legal recognition means becoming part of a protected category of the population and having some benefits as a result, including a monthly compensation of about 300€. Benefits include free counselling, legal and medical aid.

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