Bosnia and Herzegovina’s hidden population

Article written by Julian Reilly, British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Selma Korjenic, Head of TRIAL International in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ajna Jusic, President of the Forgotten Children of War Association.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country with enriching diversity and a complex history. It is a country the three of us call home. And one that we all want to be at peace, to succeed, and for all its people to prosper.

Like all countries, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces numerous challenges. The cost of living crisis, climate change and issues like education and public health, are on all our minds. And heartbreakingly there is war in Europe again for the first time since the 1990s.

In these uncertain times, the past – especially the wars that took place in the former Yugoslavia – is never far from our collective consciousness. Although that conflict ended almost 30 years ago its legacy is still felt today. Now, more than ever, people from all parts of society must work together to resolve their differences peacefully and protect the most vulnerable.

Survivors of conflict related sexual violence are some of most vulnerable members of society. Many still struggle to receive the support they need. And the justice system can be inconsistent when holding those responsible to account. There are long-lasting, physical, psychological, economic and social consequences which affect survivors, their families and wider society. Furthermore, to add insult to injury, many survivors can face social stigma which discourages them from seeking redress. All of these issues can prevent survivors from becoming fully engaged members of their communities, which weakens society as a whole.

Female survivors face further challenges. They can became mothers to children who are born as a result of rape. These children are sometimes referred to as a “hidden population”. They, like their mothers, are treated differently by parts of society for reasons completely beyond their control. The Forgotten Children of War Association is working to support them. Their ground-breaking theatre play (In the Name of the Father) takes real life-stories and gives these children a chance to tell an audience what happened to them. It can be a painful. But it is also an important healing process, for the performers and the audience.

Bosnia and Herzegovina must do more to support these children. Small steps, such as the play and the recent legislative changes in the Brčko District (which recognises these children as a category of civil victims of war) are important and positive moves in the right direction.

TRIAL International is doing excellent work to support survivors navigate the judicial system. Their work has set important legal precedents, especially in relation to the landmark ruling by the UN Committee Against Torture which highlighted the need for Bosnia and Herzegovina to meet its obligations to provide victims with means of redress. We call upon politicians and officials to ensure this is addressed without delay.

The international community also has an important role to play. We must maintain momentum.

The Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative has been a flagship UK policy since its launch in 2012. On 28-29 November, ten years on, the UK is hosting a second international conference in London to galvanise the world into further action by promoting prevention, justice and support for survivors, and to refresh the international coalition on this important issue. The conference will raise the bar on prevention and responses to conflict related sexual violence, and the conference declaration will send a strong message that these heinous crimes must end and outline the means to achieve that.

We are all delighted that Bosnia and Herzegovina will participate in the PSVI summit, and take the opportunity to showcase recent progress, like the new law in Brčko District. We are delighted that Bosnia and Herzegovina will be one of the countries to sign the conference declaration.

Looking ahead, we hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina will build on the progress that has been made so far. Recognition of children born as a result of wartime rape can and should be included in reparation frameworks across the country. The Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, which is tasked with creation of an implementation plan for the UN CAT decision, can and must resume its work and be allowed to develop concrete proposals to ensure survivors receive reparations. And the ground-breaking law that was agreed in Brčko District is only the first step. Bosnia and Herzegovina must ensure that all children born of wartime rape are entitled to rights that are comprehensive and tailored to their needs. It is vital that the authorities demonstrate leadership in the long-term challenge of driving out stigmatisation from society and act decisively against GBV by investigating more crimes, prosecuting those responsible, and ensuring that local NGOs which provide vital services, such as safe houses, are fully supported.

Each of these alone may be a small step, but taken together we believe they can have a large and positive impact on society. The decision on what to do with these suggestions rests, as it always has done, in the hands of the people and those they elect.

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