The scourge of domestic violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina demands an urgent response.
On August 29, the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina hosted a distinguished gathering of ministers and other key leaders from across the country. We were pleased to host the Speaker of the BiH Parliament, the President of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of BiH, the Federation Minister of the Interior, Cantonal Ministers of Justice and Interior, police representatives from relevant agencies and others together around one table. Their joining us in such numbers reflected our shared recognition of a serious problem facing this country: the terrible scourge of domestic abuse. We spoke not as bureaucrats but as people facing a challenge that harms many among us.
Put simply, the OSCE has as its mission promoting security in the broadest sense, and security is still an issue when half of the population is subject to domestic violence – and according to our data, half the adult women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have experienced domestic violence and 84 percent of such violence goes unreported.
I was in Tuzla last week talking to the authorities there about their responses to the most recent violent incidents. The authorities shared with us their innovative approaches to proactively tackling this problem, but let us be clear: that victim was not alone, and this is certainly not just a problem for Tuzla or Gradačac. There are victims in big cities and small towns across this entire country. We all know this.
When recent incidents such as those in Gradačac, Živinice, and Bijeljina happen, we all express our horror and sympathy for the victims and their families. And that is appropriate – it is a very human reaction – but it is not enough. There must be action. And action is possible. Domestic violence is a scourge that touches every ethnic and religious and linguistic group across the country. It is a shared challenge calling for shared action.
To start, it is of the highest importance that both Entities of BiH have harmonized their Criminal Codes and their laws on Protection against Domestic Violence with the Istanbul Convention. The RS has done so, the Federation should undertake immediate steps to do the same.
But that is simply not sufficient.
We must examine and address why the system breaks down, why victims do not turn to it for support, why under-reporting remains so prevalent. We also cannot understate the complexity of domestic violence, which involves issues of justice, safety, access to support services, gender norms and stereotypes, equality, and the normalization of violence.
Therefore, combatting domestic violence requires a similarly complex response that is nuanced, multi-sectoral, and committed, a response that is gender-sensitive, victim-centric, and trauma-informed. Such responses must also account for the many forms domestic violence takes – physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and economic – and for the diversity of victims, who span all ethnic, social, and economic divides.
The discreet but interconnected parts of the institutional system must work in concert to recognize the signs of domestic violence, ensure the availability and suitability of response and reporting mechanisms and protective measures, and strengthen judicial responses to end impunity. In doing so, all members of society – of all genders – must cultivate a culture of respect and equality.
Our invitation to come together outlined several recommendations for immediate, strategic, and systemic action, and, reached agreement on concrete, forward-looking commitments
We must first commend the Entity Ministries of Interior for their commitment to conduct training via the respective police academies, including through curricula reform, that enable future police officers to respond to domestic violence and gender-based cases promptly and effectively. Our Mission will assist the Entity Ministries in this important process wherever possible.
The Entity and Cantonal Ministries of Interior committed themselves to continue planning and implementing mandatory specialized trainings for in-service police officers. I think many would agree that it is important for those trainings to engage prosecutors as well. We hope this process will be well underway before November, and the Mission will collaborate very closely with authorities on this.
We very much welcome the initiative by Cantonal Ministries of Interior to harmonize and to make stricter the existing cantonal legislation and regulations on issuance, possession and control of firearms. I was impressed with the forward-leaning approach to this issue that Canton Tuzla is taking, but of course, these measures can only be effective if implemented more broadly. We will have to ensure that firearms are seized from the perpetrators following a report of domestic violence. Some measures are already in place, but a more efficient implementation of these procedures is of the essence.
Tthe High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of BiH has committed to ensuring effective training to improve the justice sector response to domestic violence, including the proper application of the relevant legal provisions. We appreciate their willingness and again here, my mission stands ready to help in the implementation.
Let me be very clear that by agreeing these new efforts we do not in any way mean to diminish the work already being done by dedicated individuals across this country. We deeply respect the important work being done at shelters and at relevant agencies. We simply believe that if we have the will, it is possible to do more.
I have no illusions that these additional steps can stop this scourge completely. Here and around the world – including in my own country – this will continue to be a challenge for our societies. But the fact that we can’t solve everything doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do something. If what we agreed to do leads to even one less person murdered, one less person living in fear, I believe our efforts were worth it.
I am grateful that we were able to approach this challenge not as diplomats or ministers or high officials but as human beings. Our partners in the relevant ministries across this country happen to be human beings in positions to make a positive difference in other people’s lives.
This is not a political issue, but it requires action by political institutions. We at OSCE will do everything we can to support their efforts.