International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict

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On 19 June, ‘International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict’, we reflect upon where Bosnia and Herzegovina stands in addressing the legacy of sexual violence committed during the conflict of the Nineties, how the UN in BiH is responding and what still needs to be done to secure justice and redress to men and women who survived this hideous crime.

June 19th was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly ‘International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict’ in 2015 with the UN Assembly Resolution 69/293. The UN and the member states decided to commemorate this date to raise awareness of the need to put an end to conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV), to honour the survivors of sexual violence around the world and to recognize the commitment of all those who have courageously devoted or lost their lives in standing up for the eradication of these crimes.

Conflict-related sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The conflict of the Nineties in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is one of the first cases where rape and sexual violence perpetrated against men and women were recognized as a crime against humanity by an international court. None withstanding, more than 20 years after, the effects and consequences of these crimes remain largely unaddressed and continue to have a dramatic impact on the everyday lives of survivors.

“Besides vast losses [we] survived (losses of parents, children, cousins, friends, homes, jobs), the hardest losses are invisible and immeasurable and belong to the victims’ intimate mental world. They are related to the loss of emotional exchange, loss of personal and family happiness experience, loss of confidence in institutions, in other people and in themselves, loss of sense of [our] own dignity, and loss of hope in the future.”

[survivor of sexual violence from the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina]

Often isolated from society and struggling to maintain an adequate income, survivors of CRSV and their families attest to receiving limited or no support from BiH authorities. Limited resources, the often-poor quality of services in the public system, feeble knowledge of legal rights, as well as restricted physical mobility, hinder survivors from accessing their rights, seeking justice and demanding support and rehabilitation. The overall stigma and the attitudes of society towards CRSV serve as another form of victimization, thus explaining why most survivors prefer to maintain their silence.

The response of the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina

With the purpose of supporting BiH authorities to respond to its unresolved legacy of war-time sexual violence, a Joint UN Programme was initiated in 2014, as a combined effort of four UN Agencies – IOM, UNFPA, UNDP and UN Women. The Joint UN Programme “Seeking Care, Support and Justice for Survivors of CRSV in BiH” aims to enhance CRSV survivors’ access to justice, care, empowerment and reparations. This objective will be achieved through a multi-sectorial response that combines improvements in legislation, enhancement of the quality of services accessed by survivors, social and economic reintegration programs and activities aiming at combatting the stigma that surrounds CRSV in BiH society.

Initial results of the Joint UN Programme

In the last three years and with financial support of several donors – UK Government, Canadian Government and UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict – visible advancements have been made. These include improvements in legal provisions, facilitated access to justice and rights, enhanced country-wide dialogue on reparations, capacitated institutions for sensitized and tailored health care services, economically empowered CRSV survivors, stigma combatted at community and individual level, and more. In partnership with and thanks to the commitment of BiH government authorities, new avenues are being established for survivors to access their rights and receive reparations. The Governments of Brcko District and the Federation of BiH have established commissions to recognize the status of civilian victim of war to new applicants. In Republika Srpska, a new Law on Protection of Victims of Torture has been drafted. If approved, it will reopen the application procedure that has been closed since 2007. Close to 1,000 people were introduced to the challenges and stigmatization CRSV survivors face every day and a landmark Declaration of the Inter-Religious Council will be signed on 29 June, 2017 calling for denouncing of stigmatization of CRSV survivors in BiH.  More than 280 CRSV survivors and about 2,600 other vulnerable persons, including 26 children of survivors, have received direct support from the Programme, thus being able to access justice free of charge, receive adequate support and feel more empowered and dignified.

 “I am grateful for the opportunity provided by this project, which aims to regain dignity and sense of value for the women victims of war.”

[conflict-related sexual violence survivor, beneficiary of the Programme]


Future work and challenges

Despite the recent positive developments and results achieved so far, further commitment is required from BIH authorities and stakeholders to uphold the rights and improve the status of men and women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in BIH. As stated by the UN Secretary General in his latest report on conflict-related sexual violence, authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina should strengthen countrywide mechanisms “to uphold the rights of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence to services, including free legal assistance, reparations, housing and education for the children of rape survivors, and to allocate adequate resources for this purpose.”  The Secretary General further encouraged BIH efforts “to harmonize legislation to ensure that the rights of survivors and their children are consistently recognized, irrespective of where they reside.”

The Government of the United Kingdom and the UN recently signed a GBP 320,000 worth agreement, that will enable the continuation of the Programme until March 2018. Thanks to the UK support, in the forthcoming period, the United Nations in BiH will continue to assist BiH authorities assure that CRSV Survivors in BiH are adequately redressed and serviced, socially included and individually empowered in their everyday lives.

The path towards peacebuilding and reconciliation

This process is not only important for providing redress to those who have survived rape and sexual violence and torture, but also constitutes a step towards addressing the legacy of the past, recognizing the crimes committed and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, an objective set by the world leaders with Sustainable Development Goal 16 back in 2015. As stated by the Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “For peacebuilding and reconciliation to take root, justice must be done, and be seen to be done, for sexual violence survivors. Otherwise, the trauma, disease, perceived dishonor, and desire for vengeance will fester within communities.”