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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Local Courts Face Obstacles in War Crimes Trials

Slow Progress May Create Impunity Gap for Many Perpetrators of Grave Crimes

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cantonal and district courts face serious challenges in their efforts to fairly and efficiently try cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. A sustained commitment by local authorities, as well as substantial international support, is needed to address the large backlog of cases, Human Rights Watch said.

It is estimated that several thousand unresolved case files involving very serious crimes committed during the 1992-95 war remain that may be tried before the cantonal courts in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and district courts in Republika Srpka (the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina). Yet, these trials have a fraction of the attention or support that similar trials received at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) or the War Crimes Chamber of the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Victims have been waiting for more than a decade to see justice done,” said Joshua Franco, researcher in the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “Local and national authorities in Bosnia should demonstrate the political will to ensure fair and effective trials can be held.”

The 71-page report, “Still Waiting: Bringing Justice for War Crimes, Crimes against Humanity, and Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Cantonal and District Courts,” details the numerous practical and political problems impeding these trials.

The obstacles include that prosecutors’ offices lack sufficient staff and generally do not specialize in one type of crime. Cooperation between prosecutors and police and between police across entity lines continues to be problematic. Witness protection measures are rarely, if ever, employed, and witness support services are generally not available. Prosecutors often fail to make use of available sources of evidence and do not take steps necessary to secure suspect attendance at trial. Defense attorneys generally lack access to training in relevant areas of law and are often inadequately, or not at all, compensated for their work. Some cantonal and district courts have yet to try a single case.

“Clearly, there are resource constraints in the entity justice systems, and the Bosnian authorities need to ensure that those doing effective work on these cases have the tools that they need,” said Franco. “But resources cannot explain all of the shortcomings in these trials. Prosecutors, police, judges, and others who are not fulfilling their duty to investigate and try these cases need to be pressed to do more with what they have.”

The legal system also suffers from several serious deficiencies. A lack of law harmonization in Bosnia’s four justice systems leads to inconsistent interpretations of key points of law and to widely differing punishments for similar crimes. Courts often do not respect the precedent of other courts, including the ICTY. The absence of formalized cooperation or a framework for extradition with neighboring countries makes it impossible to try many cases.

In addition, trials for crimes committed during the war that are being prosecuted in cantonal and district courts are often invisible to the public due to insufficient outreach and a lack of accurate, publicly available information on these trials.

“Without public understanding of the process, it is hard for victims, witnesses, and society at large to trust the fairness of the trials,” said Franco. “In the absence of accurate information, there is a tendency to interpret these proceedings in a way that conforms to preexisting political beliefs.”

The recent signing of a stabilization and association agreement between the European Union (EU) and Bosnia and Herzegovina underscores the importance of the EU’s commitment to building the rule of law and of supporting political stability in the country. The EU should prioritize the needs of cantonal and district courts dealing with these war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

The report includes detailed recommendations of steps that local and national authorities, as well as the European Union and other governments, can take in order to address the pressing problems standing in the way of justice for victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

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