Women-Won Justice

Noor Evers champions the women who survived the Bosnian War and the justice they achieved after experiencing horrific sexual violence and torture.

On a sweltering summer morning this June, I sat in a dark grey, functionally-furnished conference room in  Bosnia-Herzegovina. As part of Humanity in Action’s month-long human rights programme, I was about to learn a lesser-told story of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War: an estimated 20,000 – 50,000 women were subjected to horrific sexual violence as part of a wider ethnic cleansing strategy. Gender-based mass rape, sexual enslavement, torture and forced impregnation were deliberately employed as military tools. Approximately 3,000 men were also affected by this but, due to the separate challenges this brings, this article will focus on women.

Twenty-four years later, justice for these survivors is yet to be realised – the physical consequences, psychological trauma and stigmatisation persist today. According to a 2017 Amnesty International report , the Bosnian government has failed to provide reparations and rehabilitation: less than 1% have received a court trial and only 800 have been conferred the status of civilian war victims. Consequently, most victims lack any form of psychiatric support or compensation and experience poverty on the margins of society. By 2017, only 123 cases of wartime sexual violence had been completed by domestic courts, with many perpetrators receiving reduced sentences or avoiding prison.

Although this paints an incredibly bleak picture, during my stay I was privy to examples of women demonstrating incredible persistence, courage and resourcefulness to secure some form of transitional justice. Two survivors – judge Nusreta Sivac and prosecutor Jadranka Cigelj – fled to Croatia and began gathering testimonies to create a dossier of legal evidence. They presented this at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, the ad-hoc court tasked with prosecuting crimes committed during the war (Cerkez, 2013).

Partly due to their efforts, this body pioneered the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence within international criminal law. It was the first to sentence individuals for rape as a form of torture,  which led to rape being recognised as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. It also deliberated the gendered elements of enslavement as a crime against humanity (Oosterveld, 2019). Whereas rape was previously considered a “by-product of war”, it was now treated as a “clear war strategy (…) that threatens international peace and security”, signifying a large shift in the attitudes and punishments for sexual assault in conflict. Defining what happened to these women as an international crime has helped legitimise their struggle and remove some of the social stigma and victim-blaming tendencies (Grønhaug, 2018). When I visited one of the Tribunal’s original courtrooms, I was struck by the significance of the polished wooden desks and the judge’s ceremonial solemn robes; the air felt heavy with the severity of the abuses the ICTY sought to redress.

We also met with attorney Armela Ramić, a lawyer who advised and represented women in sexual violence cases. Despite the harrowing process of testifying and the complexities involved in  legal proceedings of war crimes against women in the domestic court system, slowly, she said, progress is being made. Since 2015, it is no longer necessary for prosecutors to prove the element of force in cases of rape, and the statute of limitations was removed in part of the country. Legal assistance, the methods through which testimonies and statements are collected, questioning and the overall treatment of victims are more in line with women’s fundamental rights. It is the first country in the world to apply ‘war victim’ status to survivors of sexual assault in conflict. Furthermore, the judiciary as a whole has augmented their proficiency in international law and jurisprudence, and increasingly consider special evidentiary rules in sexual violence cases (Amnesty International, 2017).

Nevertheless, many felt that the redress these criminal trials offer was limited and, as a large-scale collaborative effort, a Women’s Court was set up in 2015. This innovative method aimed to foster restorative, reparative justice and recognition by creating a safe space, where 36 women shared stories of resilience, suffering and bravery (Clark, 2015).

Although much work remains to provide reparations for these women, it is important to recognise the advancements gained by survivors, activists, lawyers and NGOs in ensuring these abuses are acknowledged and punished. Collectively, they rose to deliver justice that was not feasible in the existing system, and changed the global legal landscape for women in conflict zones.

Artwork by Domi Rybova.

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