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A Commission of Experts was set up by the UN Security Council to investigate violations of humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. Though the Commission amassed an impressive database of information on alleged violations, the data was often inadequate. Governments, IGOs and NGOs could take several steps to improve the quality of the information.

In October of 1992, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 780 to establish a Commission of Experts to investigate and collect evidence on violations of international humanitarian law in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. This was the first time since the International military Tribunal at Nuremberg that the UN had set up a body to investigate violations of this sort with an eye toward prosecuting those guilty of these crimes.

In order to carry out their mandate, the Commission created a comprehensive, systematic database of violations based on information and data from a wide variety of sources. Because of budget limitations, the database was funded by private funders and the DePaul University International human Rights Law Institute (IHRLI). Cherif Bassiouni was appointed as Rapporteur for the Gathering and Analysis of Facts.

Quality of Information Was Mixed

While the IHRLI database grew to include nearly six-thousand “cases” (encompassing tens of thousands of alleged violations and victims since there could be multiple violations per case), the quality of the data was mixed. Though the Commission drew on a number of sources for information, often this information was often inadequate as legal evidence.

Much of the information gathered by the Commission could not count as evidence in the legal sense. The Commission needed detailed information such as:

  • Names of victims,
  • Names of perpetrators,
  • Names of witnesses,
  • Dates,
  • Specific locations.

In reviewing the work of the Commission, Bassioni offered an appraisal of the different sources of information the Commission drew from and offered suggestions for how the quality of the information might have been improved.


Reports from Governments

Many government reports relied heavily on hearsay or media sources. Those which did provide detailed reports often omitted crucial information such as the names of victims, perpetrators and witnesses as well as specific dates and locations.

What would improve data gathering efforts?

  • Release refugee information and interviews in an edited form to ensure confidentiality and protect sensitive information,
  • Declassify relevant intelligence and release it in a sanitized form that protects original sources and the methods by which this information was obtained.

Reports from UN Bodies and Intergovernmental Organizations

While a number of UN bodies and intergovernmental organizations did provide reports to the Commission, others, with crucial intelligence, did not. In some cases these organizations did not provide information to the Commission because they believe this exceeded their mandate (for example, UNHCR, UNPROFOR, ICRC). In many cases, when information was provided, it lacked the detail to be able to make out criminal responsibility.

This is not to say that organizations like UNPROFOR or CIVPOL did not cooperate with the Commission. They did in many respects. However, on the crucial matter of collecting information that could serve as evidence for human rights violations, these organizations were of little help to the Commission.

What would improve data gathering efforts?

  • Interpret their mandate in such a way that they could provide invaluable and detailed information to the Commission (including field reports, notes of field interviews or copies of refugee interviews),
  • Collect evidence as a matter of policy,
  • Provide detailed information that could be used to make out criminal responsibility.

Reports from NGOs

NGOs proved invaluable as a source of information to the Commission. Even though NGOs are not in essence investigatory bodies, they displayed a genuine commitment to investigate incidents and provide analysis. Witness interviews were particularly useful for the work of the Commission.

However, more data was needed to construct effective cases against those responsible for the violations. Even some of the most useful reports did not include original supporting documentation. NGOs omitted the original documentation because they believed that this would violate promises of confidentiality or endanger informants.

What would improve data gathering efforts?

  • Provide original documentation, but where confidentiality and safety are concerns, names and other identifying information could be excised.

Media Sources

Media sources were an incalculable value as sources of leads, significant facts and corroboration. Media accounts were the basis of many of the incident reports contained in the IHRLI database.

The media brought the conflict and the human rights violations to the world's attention. Journalists were the first to document the evidence of human rights violations, especially in some of the prison camps. The value of the media as a source of information to the Commission cannot be overestimated.

Bottom Line

Though the Commission of Experts to investigate international humanitarian law violations was able to build a comprehensive and systematic database on violations in the former Yugoslavia, much of the information was inadequate. But, it could have been different. Even though the information the Commission needed came from confidential and sensitive sources, governments, the UN and other intergovernmental organizations and NGOs could provide information on humanitarian law violations in such a way as to protect the sensitivity of the sources.

Even so, the cumulative effect of the large amount of information that the Commission did receive helped to establish patterns of international humanitarian law violations. The most consistent violation was the consistent failure of military and political leaders to act to prevent grave human rights violations and punish the perpetrators.

Data and Methods:

Data Sources:

The International Human Rights Law Institute database was created by drawing from a number of information sources:

  • Government reports,
  • Reports from UN and other intergovernmental organizations,
  • Reports from NGOs,
  • Media sources. 

Funding Sources:

  • John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Full Text Availability:
Not available full text online.

Bassiouni, M. Cherif. 1999. "The Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 780: Investigating Violations of International Humanitarian Law in the Former Yugoslavia." Occasional Paper No.2. International Human Rights Law Institute, DePaul University College of Law: Chicago.

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