The long shadow of the Yugoslav Wars – Part 2: The rulers of the ‘Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’

1 December 2017 by



On 29th November 2017, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague delivered its judgment on six appeals by Croatian officials and military officers against their convictions for their actions during the Bosnian War of 1992-95.


These crimes, which included grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity, arose out of a joint criminal enterprise aimed at creating a Croatian entity in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the ‘Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’. This was backed by the government of Franjo Tuđman, President of Croatia at the time.


Following the decision, Slobodan Praljak, one of the appellants, shouted out that he rejected the verdict and drank a vial of poison, dying later that day.



Background – the creation of Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia was set up after the First World War as a union of the South Slavic peoples following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was invaded and occupied by Axis forces in April 1941 and partitioned between Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. The occupation was particularly brutal in the German-backed ‘Independent State of Croatia’, where close to a million people are estimated to have been killed, expelled or forced to convert to Catholicism. It is estimated that the total number of people killed in Yugoslavia during the war is between 1 and 2 million. Of these, the Holocaust left only 14,000 Jewish survivors from a pre-war population of 82,500.


Following the Allied victory, Yugoslavia’s Constituent Assembly abolished the monarchy, creating the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The federation was made up of six republics, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines. The constituent republics were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia, together with the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, within Serbia. Under its leader Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia was ruled as a police state under the Communist party.  Although, Yugoslavia was initially a Soviet satellite, in 1948 Tito broke with Stalin over acceptance of Marshall Aid. Yugoslavia therefore remained outside the Warsaw Pact, despite being a Communist regime.


The break-up

It was perhaps unlikely that Yugoslavia could survive as a federal state, as it was a somewhat artificial construct of a large number of different peoples. The federation began to loosen following the death of Tito in 1980 and in the following decade the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević attempted to exert Serbian hegemony over the federation. As the Communist regime fell apart at the end of the decade, Yugoslavia looked likely to fragment, and after a string of incidents in the early 1990s, the Yugoslav Wars broke out.


The first to erupt was the brief Ten-Day War of June/July 1991, following the Slovenian declaration of independence. This was followed by the much longer Croatian War of Independence (1991-95), which began when Serbs in Croatia who were opposed to the Croatian nationalist government’s declaration of independence announced their secession from Croatia.


The Bosnian War

Bosnia and Herzegovina was a multi-ethnic state with a population comprising 44% Muslim Bosniaks (who had been present in the region since the rule of the Ottoman Empire), 32.5% Christian Orthodox Serbs and 17% Catholic Croats. On 29th February 1992, it declared its independence. However, this was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs. They were mobilized against the Bosnian government under the leadership of Radovan Karadžić, supported by the Serbian government under Milošević. They sought to crush Bosnian independence by carving out a Bosnian Serb puppet entity called ‘Republika Srpska’.


The Croats were the third side in the conflict. While they initially sided with the Bosniaks (who supported the Bosnian government), relations deteriorated during the course of 1992. On 3rd July 1992, the ‘Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia’ was formally declared, which later became the ‘Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia’. It was backed by the government of Croatia, under its nationalist leader Franjo Tuđman.


A brutal war was fought over the following years, not ending until December 1995, after over 100,000 people (mainly Bosniaks) had been killed. The result was a military stalemate and the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina was partitioned. But this was not the end of conflict in the former Yugoslavia and war erupted again in 1998 – this time in Kosovo.


These criminal proceedings

This case involved the following six leaders of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia:


  1. Jadranko Prlić, Prime Minister of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.


  1. Bruno Stojić, Head of the Department of Defence of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.


  1. Valentin Ćorić, Chief of the Military Police and then Minister of the Interior of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia.


  1. Slobodan Praljak, Lieutenant General in the Bosnian Croat Army (HVO) and Assistant, then Deputy, Minister of Defence of Croatia.


  1. Milivoj Petković, Chief of the Main Staff of the HVO.


  1. Berislav Pušić, officer in the Military Police of the HVO, with responsibilities for detention and prisoner exchange.


The relevant events occurred between 1992 and 1994, in eight municipalities and five detention centres in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina that was claimed by the Croatian entity.


The Trial Chamber of the ICTY had found that there had been a joint criminal enterprise directed at the oppression of Bosniaks, involving all six appellants together with Franjo Tuđman, President of Croatia. This enterprise consisted of a wide range of crimes against civilians, including murder, removal from homes, detention in very harsh conditions and the use of human shields. It was found that there were thousands of victims to these acts. The Trial Chamber sentenced Prlić to 25 years of imprisonment, Stojić, Praljak, and Petković to 20 years each, Ćorić to 16 years, and Pušić to 10 years.


The six lodged appeals and the prosecution cross-appealed. The Appeals Chamber considered the matter in detail.


First, it addressed the unlawful imprisonment of Muslims in houses in Prozor Municipality, finding no error in the conclusion that the HVO unlawfully imprisoned more than 1,000 Muslim civilians in harsh and overcrowded conditions.


Secondly, it considered the devastation of cities, towns or villages, including the destruction of the historic Old Bridge of Mostar in November 1993. It held, overturning the decision below (with one judge dissenting), that the bridge had been a military target and therefore its destruction did not constitute wanton destruction or persecution and unlawful infliction of terror on civilians. However, the court upheld the Trial Chamber’s finding that the HVO’s siege of East Mostar from June 1993 to April 1994 was specifically intended to discriminate against the Muslims of Mostar Municipality and to inflict terror on the civilian population.


Thirdly, the court upheld the prosecution’s cross-appeal that the HVO’s destruction of mosques in East Mostar and Muslim property in the Prozor Municipality required a finding of wanton destruction. However, the court declined to enter new convictions on appeal.


Fourthly, the court considered the attacks by the HVO on the Gornji Vakuf Municipality in January 1993, reversing the finding that the HVO’s use of shells in its attack on the village of Duša and three other villages was inherently indiscriminate. As such, the appellants’ convictions of murder, wilful killing, persecution and wanton destruction of property in relation to these attacks were overturned.


Fifthly, the court found that the reversal of the findings in relation to the Gornji Vakuf attacks necessitated a conclusion that wilful killing and murder were only part of the common criminal purpose from June, rather than January, 1993 onwards. As a consequence, the convictions for the murders of unarmed men in April 1993 in Prozor Municipality were overturned.


The court then upheld the finding by the Trial Chamber that, following the attacks in Gornji Vakuf Praljak, HVO soldiers set fire to the houses of Bosnian Muslims, illegally arrested and detained civilians and forcibly removed and displaced women, children, and elderly persons.


Regarding the joint common enterprise, the court upheld the finding that this type of liability had been firmly established in customary international law at the relevant time, and agreed with the judgment of the court below regarding its membership and ultimate purpose.


The sentences given by the Trial Chamber were all affirmed. It was at this point that Praljak made his intervention.



The first point to note is that whilst the Yugoslav Wars are undoubtedly complex, the judgment of the court in this case can give moral clarity to the actions of several major players in the Bosnian War. This is important, given that in the space of two and a half decades these wars have (thankfully) already morphed from current affairs into history.


Secondly, it is suggested that the dedication with which court applied itself to the evidence, including its willingness to make findings in favour of the appellants, shows that this judgment is not a rough form of “victor’s justice”. This author finds it very disturbing that Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications wrote in 2001 (in relation to Slobodan Milosevic’s trial) that the court at The Hague was “a demonstration of power more than of justice”.


Finally, it is disappointing that Praljak was able to take his own life rather than submit to his sentence. He is not the first defendant to do this – the former Croatian Serb leaders Slavko Dokmanović and Milan Babić both committed suicide in custody in 1998 and 2006. This is also reminiscent of the actions of Hermann Goering following his conviction at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War. But that being said, the fact that Praljak was convicted at all is hugely significant. Whilst it cannot bring his many victims back, it is important that he was brought to justice while he was still alive.


The ICTY will close on 31st December this year, having indicted and dealt with 161 people in total.


Jonathan Metzer is the Commissioning Editor of the UK Human Rights Blog and a barrister at One Crown Office Row.


  1. This is surprisingly a bad comment from otherwise a reputable blog. It’s short but full of mistakes and misinterpretations. Secondly, the comment contains some political implications (” This author finds it very disturbing that Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications wrote in 2001 (in relation to Slobodan Milosevic’s trial) that the court at The Hague was “a demonstration of power more than of justice”). These kinds of statements should not in my mind be published on an academic site.
    As far as the author’s account of the background to the conflict is concerned, again it contains several mistakes and confusions. “Yugoslavia…was instituted as a socialist federation of six republics, with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines.” Had the country been drawn along ethnic lines there would not have been the war. And if the author developed, otherwise correct statement that there were 32.5% Serbs and 17% Croats in Bosnia he would have realised that the previous statement was incorrect. Also, one fifth of the Croat population were Serbs; those groups were deemed under the Yugoslav Constitution as “constituent” peoples, meaning those groups’ consent was required for any significant territorial changes or other important decisions. So, the cause of the war were unilateral declarations of independence in the federal units in which other big ethnic groups also lived (see for example how Spain is managing to keep the country together!).
    It should not be forgotten that this Tribunal was created at an opportune political moment when the western states dominated the UN Security Council in early 1990s (in 1993 the Tribunal was created). Of course the Tribunal was never independent and the features, concepts it developed and politically charged trials inflicted in my mind irreparable damage to international criminal law so to speak. Is the author aware for example that the ICTY created the concept of “joint criminal enterprise” subsequent to its establishment when it needed some innovative thinking and help to find the very fist defendant guilty? There was no such form of responsibility envisaged by the Statute! And then the 200m standard, rejected by the Appeals Chamber when it wanted to declare a defendant not guilty, but without providing an alternative standard or at least reasons for the rejection of the standard created by the Trial Chamber.
    One of the main purposes of the Tribunal was to effectuate “reconciliation” among the former warring factions. And is the author aware that the continued functioning of the Tribunal is the main cause of continued hostility and animosity among the factions!?
    What to say about a Tribunal whose main witnesses in Mladic case were people from NATO, an organisation that got militarily involved against one of the parties to the conflict on more occasions? A member of the United States National Security Agency, seconded to the ICTY as a staffer who was therefore the prosecution staff. Or another witness, a Belgian Army intelligence officer; NATO was clearly in charge! Experts in criminal trials are supposed to be completely neutral? Am I doing hair splitting exercise here?
    Finally, the author finds Jeremy’s view of the Tribunal “very disturbing”; the vast majority of academics are very disturbed by the functioning of this so-called “international criminal tribunal” a reference could have been made to those people not to Jeremy Corbyn.
    Proper and good quality sources are needed for a contribution of this relevance I would suggest and a bit of research experience, which is clearly missing here.

  2. Phil says:

    This author finds it very disturbing that Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Strategy and Communications wrote in 2001 (in relation to Slobodan Milosevic’s trial) that the court at The Hague was “a demonstration of power more than of justice”.

    This commenter concurs – Milne’s devaluation of the Hague was disgraceful. Purely for accuracy’s sake, it is worth mentioning that he was specifically referring to the trial of Milosevic on charges relating to the Kosovo war, which raises different issues from the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts (as well as some of the same ones).

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