Destruction of Cultural Memory in Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mosques, churches and other cultural items were among the targets of warfare. The Herzegovinian city Stolac experienced almost complete destruction of its Bosniak cultural heritage. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is a co-operating partner in a project  that arranges an international conference in Sarajevo 23-24 April 2004 and will publish a report focussing on the Stolac case. (1-APRIL-04)

Human Rights and Destruction of Cultural Memory

– The Stolac Case

23 – 24 April 2004 Sarajevo Conference

Oslo 31 March 2004

During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mosques, churches, and other cultural items were among the targets of the warfare. The Herzegovinian city Stolac experienced almost complete destruction of its Bosniak cultural heritage. What were the reasons for these destructions? Are cultural heritage protected under international law during times of conflict? What has been done to investigate and publicise these aspects of the war? The Norwegian Helsinki Committee is a co-operating partner in a project to discuss these questions. The project arranges an international conference in Sarajevo 23-24 April 2004 and will publicise a report focussing on the Stolac case.

The project is financed by a grant of the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation (NORAD). Co-operating partners are:

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Bosnian Commission to Preserve National Monuments

The Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Contact persons
Amra Hadžimuhamedoviæ, Bosnian commission to Preserve National Monuments, E-mail:

Braco Dzemidzic, The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in bosnia and Herzegovina, E-mail:

Gunnar M. Karlsen, The Norwegian Helsinki Committee. E-mail:

Background: The Context of Destruction
On 11 September 1998, representatives of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) signed a Declaration affirming the right to cultural heritage as an integral part of human rights.[1] The irreplaceable nature of the tangible and intangible legacy it constitutes is permanently exposed to risk of neglect, denial, prohibition, lack of understanding, annihilation, hiding, whitewashing, and alteration. The right to cultural heritage carries duties and responsibilities for individuals and communities, for societies and mankind, as well as for institutions and states to protect the threatened heritage in a systematic way.

The signing of the Stockholm Declaration of ICOMOS marked, unintentionally and unofficially, the fifth anniversary of the beginning of a systematic destruction of the cultural heritage of Stolac, as part of a broader violation of human rights of the citizens of Stolac: torture, unlawful detention, killing, expulsions, and appropriation of property. The destruction of the cultural memory was a means to achieve ethnic homogenisation of the community and to extinct cultural diversity, which made the fabric of which the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina was woven. The crimes committed against the citizens of Stolac in the last decade of the 20th Century clearly illustrate the scope of the program conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The implementation of this program required ideology as a means of legitimisation, resources to organize the crimes, and willing perpetrators. Accountability for these crimes is dependent on understanding the rationale, causes and purposes of them. Such an understanding is a precondition for being able to respond to the crime with justice, and the acts of justice start by uttering and presenting the truth.

The society of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be described as pluriform in its totality. This pluriformity, like any pluriformity, is genuine, and cannot be reduced to any of the existing models. But, it embraces universal content that pertains to the world in general and each human being in particular. And this content is primarily the Bosnian-and-Herzegovinian experience of the relation between individual and collective identities. Essentially so, the symbols of religious pluriformity throughout the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina – churches, monasteries, synagogues, and mosques – meant the acceptance and recognition of collective diversities within the same public space.

In Stolac, an old Bosnian-and-Herzegovinian town, such pluriformity found its full expression all along the history of this area, in which people of various religious and ethnic origins used to live. In the war against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the territory of Stolac was split in two, and a systematic annihilation of the Bosniak cultural heritage was conducted. The destruction of cultural memory that could serve as testimony to the pluriformity is still going on. Throughout the territory of Stolac, almost all the contents of the cultural memory of Bosniaks have been destroyed. The whole population was expelled in 1993. Several thousand inhabitants of Stolac were detained in concentration camps. More than 50 civilians were killed in torture chambers, through which several hundred people passed.

On the grounds of such crimes, an ideology of systematic violation of human rights was set up.

As a precondition for the return of the expelled population to Stolac, the current policy of apartheid must be addressed. The perpetrators of the war crimes make use of a model of separation to continue their program of ethnic homogenisation. Apartheid and reframing of the cultural memory are tools for representing the identity of the others in Stolac as second-class, alien and not-belonging-to-Stolac. This would ensure the extinction of individuals and of the community, for whom this identity is a means for self-understanding and acceptance of the others, a means of survival.

The identification of the scope and purposes of the destructions in Stolac may provide new insight into the meaning of the cultural memory in relation to other appurtenant human rights, seen from the point of view of both an individual and of a community. This may be of universal value in current times of conflicts and destructions. Such a project may also underline the common responsibility for the legacy of all the values of humanity.

Establishing civil trust and confidence in Stolac is a precondition for return of people and restoration of respect for human rights. This process has both its interior and exterior side to it. The inhabitants of Stolac must themselves find a way to request respect and protection of human rights and to restore confidence. But they also need continuous assistance from outside. It is only through these two simultaneous processes that the de facto situation of apartheid and continued violations of human rights could be changed.

The continuous efforts of erasing collective memory in Stolac are still conducted by estranging the people from their cultural heritage. In addition, people are indoctrinated by ideological surrogates aiming at total destruction of the cultural fabric of the town.

This precarious situation calls for reassessment, re-presentation and rehabilitation of values as an integral part of efforts to reconcile Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. These efforts aim at re-establishing respect of human rights.

Project Aims
The aim of the project “Human Rights and Destruction of Cultural Memory: the Stolac Case” is to analyse the destructions in a human rights context. This aim will be achieved by documenting the destructions in light of cultural rights, religious rights, right to the identity, right to the public space, estate rights, etc. Each of these rights will be seen in the light of the significance of cultural memory for the survival of a community.

The project will provide insight into:

The destruction of the cultural polyformity of Stolac 1992-1996

The memory and oblivion within the polyform identity

Ways to reconstruct civic confidence and justice: reconstruction of the destroyed and the dialogue.

The organizers expect that the project will contribute to concrete understanding of the relationship between human rights and cultural memory. The conference and the report may contribute to changes of approaches and attitudes within the relations between the individuals and communities comprising the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to the understanding of the meaning of destruction of cultural memory as part of the totality of the crime, adjudicated within the international criminal justice processes.

23-24 April 2004 Sarajevo Conference
The Conference will be organized through four Sessions 1) Introductory Session: Setting the Stage, with four key speakers and 2-4) three focused panels facilitated with five key speakers for each.

All keynote presenters are to submit abstracts of their presentations, with up to 300 words, by 1st of March 2004 at the latest, and integral text of their presentations by 15th of April 2004. All abstracts will be available to participants during the conference, while the papers will be published in the proceedings from the conference.

The time limit for the presentations is 45 minutes. Other participants of the conference are expected to take part in the debates on the topics presented by keynote speakers. All participants in the debate will have to submit, before the opening of the conference,  titles and brief description of their presentations, which will have to be presented within the time limit of 10 minutes. The participants in the debates may also send to the organizer longer written papers too, which may be published in the proceedings from the conference.

The participants will have at their disposal appropriate technical equipment (computer, overhead projectors, screens, etc.), should they request so in advance.

The languages of the conference will be the official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina and English. Simultaneous interpretation will be provided.



Friday 23 April 2004

09.00 Opening of the conference

Introductory speeches of the representatives of the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina and international community, and organizers of the conference

09.45 “Panther” documentary movie

10. 30 Setting the Stage

Presentation of documents concerning the heritage of Stolac: prosperity, destruction and reconstruction (power-point presentation) – Amra Hadžimuhamedoviæ

11.45 – 12.30 Setting the Stage

Cultural memory and human rights – international legal framework and legal framework of Bosnia and Herzegovina – Haris Hrle

Qualification of the crimes of destruction of cultural memory in well-known ICTY cases – the Stolac case? – Charles Tucker, US Federal Attorney

Stolac Case and the Role of Media – Nick Thorpe, BBC correspondent

14.00 – 19.00:  Destruction of Stolac in the period from 1992 to 1996, origins, goals and consequences

Keynote speakers (tbc): Hector Gullan, Mehmed Dizdar, Zlatko Trniniæ, Ivo Banac, Samija Rizvanoviæ

Saturday 24 April 2004

09.00 – 13.00

Forms of destruction of cultural memory in Stolac and human rights

Keynote speakers (tbc): Andreas Riedlmayer, Michael Sells, Ljiljana Ševo, Amer Medar, Sonja Biserko

14.30 – 19.00 Reconstruction of cultural heritage: obstacles and abuses, rights and future

Keynote speakers (tbc): Senad Mehmedbašiæ, Thomas Stockholm, Ivan Lovrenoviæ, Sir Martin Garrod,  Šaæir Filandra.

19.00 Conclusions

Signing of a declaration on protection of human rights and reconstruction of the destroyed cultural memory in Stolac.





[1] ICOMOS is an international non-governmental organization of professionals, dedicated to the conservation of the world´s historic monuments and sites. In its 1998 Stockholm Declaration, ICOMOS “affirms that the right to cultural heritage is an integral part of human rights considering the irreplaceable nature of the tangible and intangible legacy it constitutes, and that it is threatened to in a world which is in constant transformation. This right carries duties and responsibilities for individuals and communities as well as for institutions and states. To protect this right today is to preserve the rights of future generations.

·         The right to have the authentic testimony of cultural heritage, respected as an expression of one´s cultural identity within the human family;

·         The right to better understand one´s heritage and that of others;

·         The right to wise and appropriate use of heritage;

·         The right to participate in decisions affecting heritage and the cultural values it embodies;

·        The right to form associations for the protection and promotion of cultural heritage.”


May 4, 2021

Grants Coordinator

Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF) seeks an experienced Grants Coordinator responsible for post-award grant management and compliance of HRHF’s national partners. Location: Ukraine, Belarus; Moldova, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia. Deadline: 17 May 2021.

May 3, 2021

Suppression of Russian Media

Human Rights House Foundation supports a joint civil society statement calling for the Russian government to uphold its responsibility to protect and defend freedom of the press.

April 28, 2021

HRHF Annual Report 2020

2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges in the wake of COVID-19. In our annual report, discover how Human Rights House Foundation and the network of Human Rights Houses adapted to meet these new challenges and continue our work together to advance human rights at home and abroad.