Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Whose Justice?

Labour Party

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is today a flourishing European state, which looks set to secure its place as a member of the European Union in the next few years.  Its current image stands in stark contrast to that of the 1992 to 1995 period, which witnessed a bitter war and countless human rights violations. Among them were rapes, killings, forced displacement, and other crimes against humanity.  During the war, women comprised a large proportion of the total victims, with rape being actively used against them as a tool of war.  Estimates of the numbers of women raped range between 20,000 and 50,000, though the actual figure has proved difficult to determine.

Fourteen years on, and justice in the majority of cases has still not been served.  In an attempt to reverse this lack of progress, a unique event organised by Amnesty International and chaired by my fellow Socialists and Democrats Group member, Emine Bozkurt MEP, was held yesterday in the European Parliament.  Its aim was to provide an opportunity for Parliamentarians to hear first-hand the experiences of women who were directly affected by this issue, so that MEPs might find a way of moving things forward.

This initiative is not a new one.  In fact, Amnesty International has been working for six years on the current project and on helping victims of rape to fight for the justice they deserve.  In September it published a report entitled Whose Justice? Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Women Still Waiting, which highlights the on-going struggle women are experiencing in trying to obtain justice in BiH, and which seeks to offer some hopes for the future.

The report is shocking in parts.  It notes first of all that rape is a crime under international law and that it is the only crime of sexual violence recognised explicitly by the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).  Yet to date there have only been 18 rape convictions at the international level for the 1992 to 1995 period in BiH.  Even more disturbing is that many perpetrators have now found themselves holding high positions in the region, be it in municipalities, banks or schools, and victims are rarely in a position to stand up to them.

Achieving justice is not the only important consideration.  A significant issue identified by Amnesty and other NGOs is that the ICTY has by and large failed to address the long-term psychological, social and economic needs of the survivors of sexual violence.  Unlike at the International Criminal Court (ICC), where survivors have the right to be represented thoughout criminal trial proceedings, at the ICTY survivors can only participate if they themselves provide evidence at The Hague.  Understandably this can have a damaging impact upon victims, who risk their personal safety and expose themselves to added trauma in their determination to see their violators brought to justice.

The question, then, is what can be done in the light of this report?  One idea put forward by Amnesty is to encourage the Bosnian authorities, NGOs and victims to meet together, and to set up a state strategy on reparations for victims.  This is something the authorities have been avoiding for some time.  The European Parliament and other legislative bodies must push the issue up the agenda, and ensure that the Bosnian authorities face up to the needs of victims.  It has been 17 years since the start of the war in BiH, and it will be many more years before a reasonable number of convictions have been secured.  I believe that it is up to those who have the power, including myself, to speak up for the victims of rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to ensure that those responsible for grave crimes against humanity and war crimes are held to account for their actions.