The greatest achievements are to change the course of someone’s life for the better. Adrijana Hanušic Bećirović became a lawyer to fight injustice and for the past twelve years she has stood firmly on the side of the victims and survivors of war crimes.
Adrijana Hanušic Bećirović has a natural aura of calm and respect about her; slightly leaned back in her chair and hands folded in her lap, she lets every question sink in before answering.
In her role as senior legal advisor at TRIAL International, she creates legal and advocacy strategies for the organisation’s work in supporting victims and survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and other war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“We need to change laws and court practises, and we need to fight impunity and enable victims to access reparation. Strategic human rights litigation means preparing pleadings for a positive outcome for the individual victim at stake, but with the hopes that it could also have an impact on the wider community of victims by, for example, triggering a general recommendation by the UN human rights bodies,” says Adrijana.
The laws and justice system in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been influenced by UN bodies like the Committee Against Torture and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women as well as recommendations by the European Commission. Among others, laws and practices related to the access to justice and reparation for victims of conflict-related sexual violence have, at least in part, been harmonised with international human rights standards.
However, as Adrijana points out, much work remains to be done and TRIAL International keeps pushing for the implementation of international recommendations.
For Adrijana, there was no question why she decided to study law—she wanted to dedicate her life to fight for justice. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90s, she had experienced and witnessed first-hand what it means to face human rights violations and discrimination.
“After two years of living under constant fear, my family fled to Germany. As a refugee, I continued facing and witnessing injustices. It made me determined to get the education and the skills needed to help those who cannot help themselves—because I’ve been there, and I know what it means,” she says.
Throughout her work life, she has stayed true to this cause and used her skills and knowledge with victims’ and survivors’ interest at heart.
“My universal goal when it comes to all human rights violations is to put the law at the service of victims. To provide tools for those who don’t have the means to fight for their rights on their own,” says Adrijana.
Sometimes it starts with raising the awareness of victims. That the feeling of wrongdoing they might experience is indeed accurate and what has been done to them is in violation of legal norms and international standards.
“It can be about the act of violence itself, but oftentimes also the lack of action by a state in response to the crime—states have made international commitments and have to implement them properly,” says Adrijana.
At TRIAL International, victims of war crimes can seek free legal advice in their individual cases. It can be to hold perpetrators accountable, to access reparations such as compensation or other support measures to help them lead a normal life.
“It is important for victims that perpetrators are properly punished, serving jail time, but compensation also sends an important message—the harm they have suffered is acknowledged and someone must pay for it. Whether that is the perpetrator or the responsible state or entity,” says Adrijana.
But sometimes, justice is hard to achieve in a complicated legal system.
“We have worked on the issue of reparations for the past ten years, and there are many obstacles facing victims. In civil proceedings, their compensation claims are being rejected due to the application of statute of limitations, which is contrary to international standards. A consequence of this is that victims have been bound to pay high court fees because they lost their case. They then have to pay big amounts to the very entity they sued for having destroyed their lives,” says Adrijana.
Taking these fights, however, is important. Not only to redeem the past, but to prevent it from repeating itself.
“Gender-based violence in general needs to be declared unacceptable and condemned—it needs to be punished and it needs to be punished properly. There is also an important preventive function of sanctioning perpetrators,” says Adrijana.
She is convinced that the massive scale with which women were subjected to conflict-related sexual violence in the 90s’ war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (where an estimated number of 20,000 women, men and children were raped or subject to sexual violence) was partly due to the fact that these crimes were at that time still seen as a collateral damage of war.
“It was only after the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as in Rwanda, that there was a breakthrough in the judicial practice. A change of mindset initiated by strong female lawyers and other feminist professionals such as political analysts, psychologists and gender advisers. Only then was it declared that acts of conflict-related sexual violence can constitute a war crime, a crime against humanity or a form of genocide,” says Adrijana.
Strengthening the position of women in peacetime will reflect on how women are affected in times of war and conflict. If women have a subordinated role and are faced with discrimination and violence in peacetime, they will likely suffer more conflict-related sexual violence if a war breaks out.
“I hope that there won’t ever be such violence for Bosnia and Herzegovina again, but we need to strengthen the rule of law system and institutions and educate officials. When it comes to all different forms of gender-based violence, it is also important to strengthen women’s financial position, educate them and ensure their independence,” says Adrijana.
An example of how women’s position in society affects their possibilities to achieve justice can be drawn from a case TRIAL International had several years ago with a victim who was raped as a minor.
“The perpetrator was living in Switzerland when we initiated the case. But he probably realised that he would be better off if he would be prosecuted in Bosnia and Herzegovina, less likely to receive a harsh punishment,” explains Adrijana.
He moved back to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the prosecutor asked the survivor for her opinion on a plea-bargaining—the perpetrator would get one year prison sentence and pay her compensation for the longstanding harm inflicted to her as a result of the crime.
“It was a really tough decision for her. It took weeks and I was very careful not to influence her in any way. For her, it would have been acceptable if he would get at least three years, a little bit more time in prison. But because of her wish for him to accept responsibility for the harm caused and her fragile economic situation, she accepted the deal as it was,” says Adrijana.
The perpetrator, however, was legally allowed to exchange his one-year prison sentence by paying additional money to the authorities, which he did. Consequently, he didn’t serve a single day in prison.
“For the victim, it was very important that we, at TRIAL International, tried to make sure that could never happen again to others. The law allowing this still hasn’t changed, but we have been flagging the problem towards national and international officials and the wider public. I have openly blamed and shamed the judicial actors of the local court and local prosecutor’s office involved and they have been condemned by colleagues. This is also a way of preventing this from ever happening again in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prison sentences for the gravest international crimes should not be substituted for money,” says Adrijana.
Meeting ignorant officials, driven by political agendas, is certainly the toughest part of the job, Adrijana admits.
“Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good your legal arguments are. It’s like talking to a wall. They have been instructed not to accept your proposals,” says Adrijana.
The lack of empathy for the individual human being makes her both frustrated and sad. But there are ways to push officials to try harder.
“I am always so happy when I can reach somebody’s heart by telling the individual stories of victims and survivors. When legal professionals don’t see the point in focusing on a certain aspect of the proceeding or a change of law, you can try to illustrate concrete examples of how it feels and what is at stake for the victim. And then, sometimes, you see this shift and they say ‘Why not? Let’s try to break new ground.’ Those are some of the biggest moments you can achieve as a human rights lawyer, I think. The moments I am most grateful for, however, are those where you can touch individual lives of survivors.”
Kvinna till Kvinna has supported women’s rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1993. The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 1995 but left behind a traumatised society. On paper, the equality legislation is progressive, but its implementation is patchy. Women earn less and few are appointed to decision-making positions in politics. Violence against women is also widespread. The Bosnian women’s movement works to promote peace, establish accountability for war crimes and end violence against women. Kvinna till Kvinna supports several partner organisations working to promote women’s rights and women’s position in society.