This week’s deeply concerning announcement of the release of 10 people convicted of some the most heinous crimes committed in Europe since the Second World War, including genocide, has been a reminder of the scale and complexity of the challenge of delivering justice to the victims of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The UK is working hard to support local efforts to tackle the culture of impunity for serious war crimes, including crimes of sexual violence. Last Friday I visited Bihac in north-west Bosnia, where we sponsored a packed screening of a powerful new film by Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic ‘For Those Who Can Tell No Tales’. The film portrays the real-life experience of an Australian tourist who unwittingly stays in a hotel in Visegrad in which women had been raped during the war, and is profoundly shocked by the culture of denial towards crimes of sexual violence which persists in Bosnia and Herzegovina to this day.
We had an excellent panel discussion afterwards with victims of sexual violence, NGOs representing and supporting victims, the lead War Crimes Prosecutor for the region, a psychiatrist treating victims, and an engaged, mainly young audience. I also met the Chief Prosecutor and Prime Minister of Una-Sansko Canton, both of whom are committed to trying to speed up the processing of cases in the area. By coincidence, the arrest of a man suspected of wartime rape took place on the same day in Banja Luka.
My visit also coincided with the completion of a special training week for Judges and Prosecutors dealing with cases involving sexual violence. The training was delivered by a barrister and a psychologist from the UK PSVI Team of Experts – the second such PSVI deployment here this year, as part of a wider project we are supporting through the OSCE. I had very positive feedback from one of the Prosecutors who’d been through the training about how useful it had been, and how useful the wider project was proving in helping them process cases successfully.
One big theme that came out of the day for me was the critical need to recognise the depth of the trauma that victims had suffered, and the importance of skilled and sensitive first contact with them if they were to be ready to commit themselves to the potentially re-traumatising experience of giving evidence as witnesses. As well as ensuring Prosecutors and Judges are well trained, this means training the Witness Support Officers who are now being placed in Courts here with the support of UNDP, and also providing backing to those NGOs such as MEDICA Zenica who are working on the ground with victims all over BiH. Without their engagement and partnership with Prosecutors, many witnesses will not come forward.
The other encouraging conclusion from this visit was that, despite the daunting scale of the challenge here, there are individuals working at local level who are personally deeply committed to delivering justice, support and rehabilitation to the thousands of victims of the war all over this country. That gives us the inspiration and the platform to step up our own efforts to give them the support they need.