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Sunday, 14 February 2021

The Struggle for Redress: Victim Capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As part of the SEESOX seminar series on the quality of democracy and rule of law in South East Europe, on 10 February Jessie Barton-Hronešová presented her recently-published book on the efforts for redress of the victims of the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), which is a contribution to the literatures on transitional justice, conflict studies, and BiH.

The book was based on the results of Dr Barton-Hronešová’s intensive field research in the country as well as her academic studies in Oxford. It looks at victims’ journeys to secure redress in a post-war state, and examines the role of various social actors in influencing the policies of transitional justice. Initial questions included how victims have influenced reconstruction in a post-conflict state: what were their aims, and how did they go about achieving them? Why and how has redress been adopted in such a complex and piecemeal manner in BiH? It has involved one-off payments, and prioritization for employment or for education, but there is not even consensus on the types of redress or what to call it.

An initial stage of the research was to divide the victims into five categories: military war victims; civilian war victims; families of missing persons; victims of torture; and victims of sexual violation. Some groups are recognized at the state level, some at the level of the BiH entities. The victims of torture are still unrecognized at the BiH level. The process of achieving redress is still ongoing.

Dr Barton-Hronešová’s research centred on a comparative study of the experience of these five groups. “Victim capital” can be seen as the social, political, and economic leverage and influence attributed to each of the victim groups. This in turn boils down to the moral authority, mobilization of resources and the international salience of the various groups, which in turn reflects the agency of the victims and their allies.

Moral authority is highest amongst the “clean hands” victims. This relates to the identity properties of the groups as well as their places as national beacons of suffering.

Mobilization of resources depends on the activism of the groups: some are well-endowed with computers; others are working off notepads. Leadership capacity is important, including an ability to protest and destabilize.

International salience reflects the dominant international topics of the day.

Dr Barton-Hronešová found that the victim groups had windows of opportunity, such as before elections and at times of increased international engagements. Amongst the most successful groups were a sub-set of the missing persons, but even their success was limited. The higher the overall victim capital, the more likely the group was to obtain redress. There were many different pathways to success, but context matters: the domestic authorities are sensitive to political and reputational repercussions.

In some cases there was political manipulation of the victims, but some victims engaged in politics too. Some victim leaders were close to ethno-national groups. Victims of torture were the one group not recognized until recently.

Experience in redress reflected societal polarization; what was “owed” was usually seen as what the other side owed the victim. There was socioeconomic competition for the same, limited resources.

A great success was achieved by the families of missing persons in 2004, with legal recognition of their claim—although even for this group implementation is lagging—for instance there is no fund for victim compensation.

In discussing Dr Barton-Hronešová’s work, Jasna Dragović-Soso (Goldsmiths, University of University) stressed the broader implications of the work, for other post-conflict situations, as well as those of migrants, refugees or natural disasters. Ex-Yugoslavia is a laboratory of transitional justice. Scholarship first focused on the ICTY-related development of international law, which still remains the most extensive body, but there is increasing emphasis on transitional justice at ground level.

Dr Dragović-Soso commented that this work was the most comprehensive overview of all types of victims. In its optimal scenario, where all three identified factors aligned, there could be “success”—such as for the missing persons group based in Srebrenica. However, even in this optimal scenario success was short-lived. Little material benefit accrued, except to the leaders of the group. It showed, that even under optimal conditions, victim power is at best partial and short-lived.

John Alderdice (Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford) commented that this work was very different from most political research work, on account of the emotional intensity of the subject being addressed. He noted that Dr. Barton-Hronešová recognizes all the different types of victims, including those regarded as innocent and those regarded by others as not victims. Recognition of a group is only the first step towards redress. What do victims want? In the short term they want financial support, but this also could make people even angrier—is this the value on my life? Broader lessons can be learned, for instance from the First Nations in Canada. Some feel that they have no agency. Some refight the war again, with different means. Sometimes forgiveness is seen as a betrayal by others.

Lord Alderdice considered that Dr Barton-Hronešová’s work was an important contribution to fostering a deeper understanding of the issues. Problems of human relations are not resolved. One has to continue to work at them.

Dr Barton-Hronešová agreed with the comments of the discussants. The power of victim capital is limited. She was looking at the first steps: recognition and passage of a law. Later stages of redress are more difficult and boil down to allegiances with particular agents. Overall, redress does not let people move on, but lets life continue in some way. Recognition can for instance provide access to medical health facilities and this can be important.

Charles Enoch (ESC Visiting Fellow; Team Leader for European Political Economy Projct (EuPEP))

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