Twenty years after Bosnia was devastated by civil war, ordinary people who witnessed, or were the targets of horrific war crimes, are still not getting the support they need from a process designed to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In the current social reality, perpetrators enjoy many more benefits offered by the judicial system than the victims

Representative from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The victims and witnesses of atrocities that were committed during Bosnia’s devastating civil war are still not getting adequate support from the country’s war crimes trials process 20 years on, a study has found.

The two-year research project, led by the University of Cambridge, has been investigating the impact of the public engagement programme undertaken by the war crimes chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Court is the main body responsible for trying those accused of committing acts of genocide and other acts of brutality during the 1992 – 1995 conflict.

It found that the Court Support Network – the collective of outreach initiatives set up to encourage witnesses and victims to use the judicial system – has played a “critical” role in building trust in the Court and the trials themselves.

Despite this, however, the researchers stress that the system as a whole is still too heavily focused on trying alleged criminals and not enough on enabling and supporting victims to come forward. They report that many Bosnians continue to feel marginalised by the judicial process and that a lack of state-run support services, like free legal advice and psychological support for witnesses, is perpetuating a climate of mistrust and disengagement.

They also warn that unless the gulf between victim communities and the Court system is bridged, the Court itself may never be accepted by a large part of Bosnia’s population, raising questions about the country’s capacity to succeed in the longer term as a unified state.

Although the project will technically reach its conclusion in April 2013, its findings have already been reported back to the Court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, and other key international bodies, such as the US Department of Justice and the United Nations Development Programme.

It has been praised by the President of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, among others, for its “significant contribution” to improving the Court’s efforts to become transparent and accessible to the Bosnian public as a whole.

The project is led by Dr Alex Jeffrey, a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Cambridge, along with Dr Michaelina Jakala, from Newcastle University.

“Justice for what happened in Bosnia during the 1990s is a social issue, and it needs to be treated as such,” Jeffrey said. “It is critical that when ordinary Bosnians need the legal system, they feel that something will be done and something will come out of the process. To date, the Court has focused on retribution – trying and punishing war criminals. The question now is how that leads to restoration.”

Jeffrey’s research has focused on the Court Support Network – a group of five non-governmental organisations spread across different towns in Bosnia. The Network aims to explain the work of the court, and encourage witnesses and victims to come forward. As well as distributing information about the legal system, it runs workshops, youth clubs and seminars, acting as a focal point for communities.

The Network was set up as a direct response to low public faith in the war crimes trials process and long-standing difficulties with public engagement. Twenty years after the war, Bosnia is still a highly complex mosaic of people of different nationalities and ethnic groups, where few state-level agencies exist. Some groups, especially Bosnian Serbs, are vocally opposed to the judicial system altogether and have even accused it of racism.

More broadly, there is a widespread lack of faith in a country where the institutions of society have failed so spectacularly in the past, and where it took almost a decade after the end of the war before a national War Crimes Chamber was established.

Jeffrey and Jakala set out to ascertain how successfully the Network has bridged the gap between Court and citizens. To assess its impact, they worked mainly in Sarajevo, Mostar and Bijeljina – where they carried out observations of Network activities, and interviewed participants, court officials, policy-makers and members of the Network itself.

They found that the Network has played a “critical” role in engaging with people and building trust in the judicial process. Often members have to carry out careful and painstaking work to build trust with individuals who are deeply apprehensive about participating in trials. Their workshops, Jeffrey argues, have become fora in which ordinary Bosnians can discuss what citizenship and justice should mean in their country, and focus on Bosnian values in the future, rather than punishing criminals for the past.

Their feedback to the Court and other organisations, however, stresses that this is only a first step. Jeffrey argues that the “litmus test” of the success or failure of justice for the victims of atrocities committed during the Bosnian War will be whether the Court can make these methods a core part of its function, and put victims at the heart of this process.

The researchers make a number of recommendations about how this could be achieved. At the moment, for example, witnesses and victims do not have access to free legal advice, enabling them to find out what they can expect from the judicial system. Better psychological support for witnesses is also needed. Currently such care is run by non-governmental organisations, but the researchers point out that the Court and State will gain more public trust if they provide this kind of support themselves.

The study has also drawn attention to the fact that the Court’s War Crimes Chamber can anonymize its verdicts and indictments, allowing defendants’ names to be replaced simply with their initials. This policy of anonymity, the researchers argue, shields the perpetrators of war crimes from acknowledging their guilt and limits public faith in the system, because victims do not know what the outcome of a trial has been.

The project has already won praise from organisations including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The President of the Court of Bosnia Herzegovina, Meddžida Kreso, has also backed an application for additional research funding which would enable Jeffrey and Jakala to carry out a follow-up study.

In a letter of support, Kreso said: “These activities significantly contribute to the efforts made by the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina to be proactive, while presenting specific and detailed data on the operation of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina concerning war crimes cases, thus making sure that the operation of the Court is transparent, accessible and understandable to the general public.”

A representative from the International Tribunal said that the project had “offered a clear message that victims of crime have to come back to the centre of social attention and that they should be provided with legal support teams and representatives who would work for their own good.” He added: “In the current social reality, perpetrators enjoy many more benefits offered by the judicial system than the victims.”

The two-year research project was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

In brief

• The Bosnian War was fought between March 1992 and December 1995. At least 100,000 people lost their lives and more than two million were displaced from their homes, often as part of ruthless “ethnic cleansing” programmes.

• The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice. More than 161 people have been indicted by the ICTY, but most were elite personnel. From the 1990s, it was the long-term intention of the UN to devolve power for war crimes trials more generally to the affected states themselves.

• The war crimes chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CBiH) was set up in 2005 and finally transferred war crimes trials to Bosnian-Herzegovinan jurisdiction, allowing the state (rather than the international community) to try alleged war criminals.

• The CBiH has not been wholly popular. Nationalist parties, particularly those based in the Republika Srpska – the Serb-orientated political entity in Bosnia Herzegovina – remain critical of its approach and argue that it challenges their own, devolved governance structures.

• The Court Support Network (CSN) is a group of five non-governmental organisations, set up to engage the wider public with the judicial process. Its main aim is to enable and encourage witnesses and victims to come forward and use the judicial process.

• The researchers behind the current study argue that the CSN is performing a wider function, enabling the legislative process to become “embedded” in society and giving them a forum in which they can discuss what justice in Bosnia should mean through seminars and workshops. This is seen as critically important, as many ordinary citizens feel distanced from the Court itself.

• At the same time, the study argues that this process of public engagement needs to become a more central part of the court’s activity, putting victims at the centre of the justice process. Free legal advice, psychological support and an end to defendant anonymity in trials would rectify a system which at the moment seems to be designed with the perpetrators, rather than the victims, in mind.

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