Press Release

Nearly 30 years following the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, war victims remain neglected

18 January 2024

A joint op-ed by Bojana Urumova, Head of Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo; Johann Sattler, Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brian Aggeler, Head of the OSCE Mission to BiH, and Ingrid Macdonald, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The devastation of the 1992-1995 war continues to impact Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in numerous ways. Amongst other issues, key decision-makers lack the political will to help victims of war deal with lingering trauma and various forms of marginalization. As such, nearly 30 years after the conflict, victims in BiH still lack essential institutional assistance, including compensation. Beyond its grave effects on both individuals and communities, these failures also hinder BiH’s progress toward genuine and lasting reconciliation.

As recently noted by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, confronting past gross human rights violations is central to achieving long-term peace and security in cohesive, pluralist democratic societies. That said, moving forward to achieve durable peace and security respectful of human rights and the rule of law requires full recognition of the depth and breadth of the suffering of all victims of war, including the challenges that hinder access to adequate support, reparation, protections and justice. Chronic neglect and widespread denial of their suffering compound the physical and psychological trauma inflicted during the war. Responses to trauma, therefore, must reflect the realities of these timelines and the evolving needs of victims.

Despite these challenges, some progress has been made. Notably, as a result of years of advocacy by victims’ associations, both the Brčko District (BD; 2022) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH; 2023) adopted laws that recognize children who were born as a consequence of wartime rape as victims.

Most recently, on 1 January 2024, application of the new FBiH Law on the Protection of Civilian Victims of War (FBiH Law) began. The adoption of this law was an essential step in ensuring the recognition and rights of civilian victims of war and in providing support to a historically neglected and marginalized group.

While important, the FBiH Law and comparable legislation in the Republika Srpska (RS) and BD are insufficient to address these issues.

As consistently recommended by United Nations (UN) human rights mechanisms and the Universal Periodic Review, a unified BiH-wide framework should be established to replace the patchwork of existing laws and ensure the provision of readily accessible and sufficiently and sustainably financed institutional and legal support to victims, free from any form of discrimination, including based on place of residence.

The statutory deadlines enshrined in the various laws regulating the status of victims of war impose arbitrary and undue burdens on victims’ ability to obtain recognition and are inconsistent with BiH’s international legal obligations and human rights norms.

Decisions by international mechanisms affirming the rights of civilian victims of war to effective forms of redress, including compensation, remain unimplemented. This includes recommendations by several UN treaty bodies as well as the 2019 Decision by the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) requiring that BiH issue a public apology and secure payment of compensation to a victim of wartime rape as awarded by the Court of BiH, as well as to establish a comprehensive and effective national-level reparation scheme for all victims of war crimes. Over four years after UNCAT issued its decision, the authorities have yet to fulfil their obligations.

Compounding these difficulties around compensation, RS authorities have engaged in the deeply unfair practice of seeking reimbursement for court costs from victims of war who were barred by statutes of limitations from seeking compensation through civil proceedings. Moreover, despite the availability of formal mechanisms allowing victims to seek compensation through criminal proceedings, judicial authorities throughout BiH have not ensured that victims are able to exercise that right. Indeed, according to the OSCE’s comprehensive trial monitoring program, compensation has been awarded in just 19 of nearly 700 adjudicated war crimes cases. 

This unjust situation also creates serious impediments to genuine reconciliation. One of the Key Priorities that determines BiH’s path to the European Union calls for concrete steps to promote an environment conducive to reconciliation and overcome the legacies of the war. In this regard, BiH should implement received and accepted recommendations related to justice and reparation for victims of war, including of conflict-related sexual violence, before its 4th Universal Periodic Review in January 2025.

Authorities in BiH at all relevant levels must take meaningful and prompt action to improve the status of victims who remain vulnerable and marginalized nearly three decades after the war. In this respect, with urgency, we call on:

  • The FBiH, RS and BD authorities to ensure that all victims can have their status recognized and can effectively access comparable social, financial and medical support, regardless of their place of residence or ethnicity and without fear of intimidation or discrimination or undue burden. This should include the harmonization of the respective approaches and the immediate elimination of all deadlines for obtaining recognition of the status of victims of war.
  • The BiH authorities, including the Council of Ministers, to ensure the prompt and comprehensive implementation of the 2019 UNCAT decision, including compensating and offering public apologies to the complainant and establishing an effective national-level reparation scheme for all victims of war crimes.
  • The FBiH authorities to implement the FBiH Law promptly, meaningfully and comprehensively, including the allocation of adequate budgetary resources.
  • The RS authorities to undertake the legal and policy reforms necessary to ensure a formal end to the practice of seeking reimbursement for costs of proceedings from victims of war who sought and were denied compensation through civil litigation.
  • Judicial authorities to identify and address any obstacles to awarding compensation to victims in both criminal and civil proceedings. Simultaneously, legislative authorities should promptly remedy any existing laws contrary to international standards relied on by judicial authorities to avoid awarding compensation as part of such proceedings.

The Council of Europe Office in Sarajevo, the European Union Office in BiH, OSCE Mission to BiH, and the UN in BiH remain committed partners to victims, victims’ associations and authorities across the country in order to improve the status and well-being of all victims of war.


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