Bosnia and Herzegovina: 20 years of denial and injustice

Twenty years after the signature of the peace agreement that ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, resolving the thousands of cases of enforced disappearances still remains utopic while discrimination and a shameful lack of political will still block access to justice, truth and reparation for victims, said Amnesty International.

While the Dayton peace agreement, signed on 14 December 1995 in Paris, did in fact bring an end to the armed conflict that had killed more than 100,000 people since 1992, leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina have since failed to show a full commitment to justice and reparation.

“Leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina must immediately unblock access to justice, truth and reparation for war crimes, including for victims of sexual violence. These fundamental steps would allow the country to advance by finally laying to rest grievances of the past,” said Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.

Leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina must immediately unblock access to justice, truth and reparation for war crimes, including for victims of sexual violence

Gauri van Gulik, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia

Political leaders, in the Serb-majority region of Republika Srpska in particular, have repeatedly stood in the way of uncovering war crimes and holding perpetrators accountable. The recent decision to suspend cooperation with the state court of Bosnia and Herzegovina further limits effective investigations and prosecutions of those suspected of criminal responsibility for war crimes who may be hiding in the Republika Srpska territory.

The central government has also failed to deliver fully on its commitment to justice. A state-wide strategy on transitional justice, although long drafted, has never been adopted and endorsed by the political establishment. Constant shortages in funding and resources mean many victims and relatives live with the knowledge that their cases will not be investigated in their lifetime.

Amnesty International is urging authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina to truly commit to resolving the over 8,000 outstanding cases of enforced disappearances from the war, and to provide access to truth, justice and reparation for the families.

Many survivors and families have never had their cases heard, while others struggle with file backlogs or find that their cases have been effectively choked by administrative hurdles. The government failed to implement the Law on Missing Persons, adopted in 2004 with the aim of establishing a fund for supporting families of the disappeared.

“This law provides a crucial missing link in ensuring reparation for families, often impoverished after having lost their sole breadwinner during the war. No more time can be wasted,” said Gauri van Gulik.

Uncovering the fate of the disappeared has been made even more difficult by funding cuts to the Missing Persons Institute, further reducing capacity for new exhumations and the verification of evidence and identification of remains.

The three-year war pitted forces from the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina against Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat forces. It was characterized by the use of concentration camps, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing. In the Srebrenica massacre, targeting Bosnian Muslims, more than 8,000 men and boys were executed in the worst crime committed on European soil since 1945.

Survivors of sexual violence still face obstacles in accessing reparation, particularly in the Republika Srpska where their status as civilian victims of war remains questioned, and many victims have been stigmatized and ostracized.

Even in instances where courts have established that a war crime has been committed involving sexual violence, compensation has often not been given directly to the victims, who are pushed to reveal their identity when pursuing claims before civilian courts, exposing them to re-victimization and social stigma.

“The competing interests of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political elites have repeatedly denied survivors their right to reparation and to reintegrate into a society free from discrimination. It’s time for leaders in Bosnia to demonstrate real political will to provide justice and a life in dignity for survivors,” said Gauri van Gulik.