War Crimes in Bosnia: Ineffective Justice

War Crimes in Bosnia: Ineffective Justice

During the Yugoslav war, 20,000 people were victims of sexualised violence. But expert opinions show that the Bosnian judiciary is only slowly coming to terms with the matter.

Carla Del Ponte and Men in Headdresses

Cooperation with the Bosnian judiciary was sluggish from the start, said ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte back in 2003 Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

BELGRADE taz | In mid-October, several portrait photographs are hanging in a small gallery in downtown Belgrade. They show the faces of young people, some with their mothers. They call themselves Children of War. Because some of them were born because their mothers were raped during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. They still feel the effects of the war today: their existence is a social taboo. They are excluded and receive no state support.

20,000 people were casualties during the Yugoslav wars sexualized violence. Few were able to bring their tormentors to justice or receive compensation. A report commissioned by the Bundestag Vice-President Aydan Özoguz (SPD), which is available exclusively to the taz, now comes to the conclusion that crimes of this kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina are only insufficiently investigated.

According to this, various actors complain that the Bosnian judiciary has only been ineffective and slow in bringing war crimes to justice since 2004. Complex procedures in particular are still pending 27 years after the end of the war. They are often deferred to meet completion quotas.

In a 2020 report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women concludes that “investigations into conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been ineffective and slow, and that compensation and support for victims has been inadequate.”

Difficult cooperation with Bosnian judiciary

“The report underlines that there is a lack of support and compensation, especially for victims of sexualized violence,” Özoguz told the taz. “Giving them access to effective procedures and compensation is essential.”

In 2008, Bosnia established a national strategy for dealing with war crimes and a body specially set up for this purpose was to monitor compliance. But the complicated cooperation between the higher Bosnian judiciary and the district and cantonal courts causes problems: there is a processing backlog at both levels.

According to an OSCE report, at least 571 cases involving 4,498 suspects were still pending in 2020. And those are just the cases where the perpetrators are already known.

According to the OSCE report, the completion rate has been falling steadily since 2017. In 2020, the judiciary completed a total of 18 cases, with a final conviction of 52 percent. In 2016, the judiciary brought 67 cases to an end, 63 percent with a conviction.

Until 2017, the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) focused on prosecuting the political and military leaders of the former warring factions. The Bosnian courts, on the other hand, should primarily deal with cases against lower command levels. A chamber was specially set up for this purpose. That changed in 2017. Since then, one of the United Nations mandated tribunal the processing by the Bosnian judiciary.

Cooperation with the Bosnian judiciary had been sluggish from the start, said ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte back in 2003. In particular, the Republic of Srpska, one of the constituent republics in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Bosnian Croat Party had resisted.

Loud nationalism in the Balkan state

Regional differences can still be seen today. While in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Brčko District the conviction rate for cases of sexualized violence in the period 2004 to 2016 was 90 percent, in the Republic of Srpska it was only 50 percent.

Meanwhile, 27 years after the end of the war, many defendants are too old or ill to stand trial. Others have died in the meantime. “Procedures must become faster and more effective,” says Özoğuz. “Only in this way can the important reconciliation between the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina progress.”

But currently are the nationalist tones in the Balkan country louder than it has been since the end of the war. Serbian nationalist leader Milorad Dodik has repeatedly called for the secession of the Republic of Srpska, and the October elections were not without incident either.

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