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During the Bosnian War, thousands of women and girls were subjected to sexual violence, and the majority have yet to see justice. The Bosnian War was an armed conflict that took place between 1992 and 1995, resulting in over 100,000 deaths. Though wars throughout history are typically accompanied by rape, the political climate in Bosnia especially encouraged rape as a strategic wartime device. During the conflict, a report by Amnesty International estimates that there were around 25,000-50,000 incidents where women and girls were forcibly raped, enslaved, and tortured by military groups.
However, less than 1% of the estimated number of victims have achieved justice through the legal system. Systemic obstacles and a lack of commitment to justice by political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina are barriers to suitable sentences being served to perpetrators.
For example, in some jurisdictions, the convicted persons have the option to convert their 12-month sentences or less into fines, allowing them to effectively “buy” their way out of imprisonment. Additionally, many other perpetrators are able to fulfil plea bargains or receive shorter sentences.
The victims of sexual violence, on the other hand, have a tougher time receiving a beneficial outcome. In order to testify in court, many sexual violence survivors must overcome monetary struggles and legal barriers. These and the distressing psychological ordeal prevent many cases from proceeding to court. This is especially relevant in the Republika Srpska, where the survivors’ status as civilian victims of war continues to be questioned. Victims are pressured into exposing their identity when pursuing court claims, making them vulnerable to social stigma and re-victimization. The slow process to achieve such inadequate justice prevents and discourages many women, and generates a feeling of helplessness.
The female victims of past war crimes are one of the most vulnerable groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they experience the highest rates of unemployment and poverty. So far, only about 800 of sexual violence survivors have been granted basic benefits, including a monthly allowance. The benefits and services provided vary greatly in different regions of Bosnia, but their overall impact will be limited unless they can become available to all. It is crucial for Bosnia to grant the victims the justice they deserve, so they can access the medical, psychological, and financial assistance they need.
Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director, said, “As each year passes, so does the prospect of ever attaining justice or receiving the support to which they are entitled. These women cannot forget what happened to them and neither should we.”
Though the past cannot be changed, it is the responsibility of the Bosnian government to ensure that women’s rights are upheld in the future. Amnesty International is insisting the Bosnian government should dedicate itself and commit to resolving the 8,000 outstanding sexual violence cases from the war. Providing families with truth and justice is fundamental in allowing the country to move on from past events and advance into the future.
In particular, Amnesty International recommends that the Bosnian government strengthen witness protection and provide some form of compensation for the victims. Gauri van Gulik also suggests that they implement a “comprehensive statewide rights-based framework for redress for civilian victims of war, including survivors of wartime sexual violence.”