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Justice being seen to be done: communicating law across space

Justice being seen to be done: communicating law across space

How is the legitimacy of a new legal institution established after violent and divisive conflict? What are the consequences if public trust is not established? What alternatives to trials and other judicial activities emerge in such circumstances?

These three questions have stimulated ongoing research in the Department of Geography by Dr. Alex Jeffrey into the creation of new courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following the 1992-95 conflict the responsibility for trying war criminals and other perpetrators of human rights abuses lay with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. But since 2006, jurisdiction over such cases has slowly transferred to domestic judicial institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In particular, the Court of Bosnia in Sarajevo has accepted cases from the International Criminal Tribunal while also investigating newly uncovered cases and issuing indictments.

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But the creation of the court and the pursuit of indicted individuals do not inevitably lead to the strengthening of public trust in legal processes. As with other aspects of the state building process in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 1995, the need for international organisations to both impose the legal framework on which the court is based and constitute part of the court's judiciary has led to calls by some politicians that the court is externally imposed and does not have democratic mandate. Other have protested that the focus on a small group of perpetrators allows many more cases to be overlooked, and have campaigned for justice for family members who remain missing.

"In the current social reality, perpetrators enjoy many more benefits offered by the judicial system than the victims" (Representative from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.)

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In order to try and foster greater public engagement with the Court's activities and understanding of its aims, the Court established a set of public outreach activities, involving information seminars, supporting visits to the court and creating a network of Bosnian non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Building on previous work by Alex Jeffrey, the project has particularly focused on the role of NGOs, a form of association that has been central to processes of state building and international development over the past two decades.

"The idea was that people felt more comfortable contacting an NGO than contacting a court, people were concerned about contacting courts, they were not seen as accessible, this was a legacy of the Yugoslav past [...] So people didn't want to contact the Court. (Representative from Public Information Office of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.)

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The NGOs that worked with the Court were located in five towns across Bosnia and Herzegovina. The idea was that each NGO would form links with a wide array of local organisations, and in doing so widen the set of organisations that work with the Court and build public trust. The research found that NGOs working alongside the court were often performing an important supportive function, but the story was more complicated than this. Often the organisations used their links with the Court to raise awareness of alternative approaches to justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina, perhaps around the lack of commemoration for the events of the conflict or the inappropriateness of a purely legal approach to confronting the crimes of the past.

The research has drawn attention to a complex geography of justice in post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Court attempts to portray a sense of the unification of Bosnian territory under a single jurisdiction. This has been achieved through transnational links and international organisations, the court would not exist without the imposition of a series of laws in the early 2000s and the presence of international judges within its judiciary.

But the court outreach processes point to a more intricate, and perhaps more complex, story. The NGOs were both forging local links with activists and victim associations, but also strengthening connections with transnational associations, and in particular the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It is by taking cases to the ECHR, through local legal advocacy NGOs such as Tracking Impunity Always (TRIAL), that individuals were seeking to receive compensation and raise awareness of crimes of the past. By going beyond the state to achieve justice, these approaches act in tension with the desire for the Court to strengthen the Bosnian state.

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In September 2012, the end of the field research period of the research, the project team held a workshop in Sarajevo, bringing together members of NGOs, Court officials, representatives of international organisations and members of victims associations. This event allowed the research to shape the policy of the Court towards public outreach, but more profoundly illuminated the frustration of victims and witnesses at the pace and outcome of the legal processes.

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