Populism and Women: Human Rights Abuses in the Bosnian case

This essay was published on the website of the Mirovna Akademija (Peace Academy Foundation):

Author: Hristina Crenn (Prilep, Macedonia)


In this essay, I am going to analyse the trajectory of Peacebuilding (in the Bosnian case) that over time was marked with a significant culture of legal mechanisms destined to ameliorate the status of past and current international conflicts, as well those who stay unresolvable for few decades or centuries. The mission of crafting peace is probably one of the most sustainable goals of the humanity and the legal institutions dealing with conflict issues. In the Bosnian case, establishing peace in the aftermath of the war, was the indispensable goal programmed by many international institutions. The primacy of international treaties over nationals laws determines wholeheartedly the hierarchical categorisation of norms. The flagrant position of the legal norms is essential for diversifying the wide spectrum of rules and their implementation. The most important legal requirement to resolve a conflict is by non-violent means in the process of PeacebuildingHans Kelsen, an Austrian jurist, in his book “Pure Theory of Law”1 mentions about the Grundnorm (basic norm) that is situated at the top of the pyramid of norms. In the French legal tradition, the Constitution is the supreme norm.

Main Part

A General Background

The International Peace Architecture is defined as a set of political and legal branches that regulates the scope of the mechanisms of conflict resolution. According to the article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the genocides are intentionally committed crimes against humanity. War crimes, ethnical cleansing and mass atrocities are also considered to be crimes against humanity. The genocide of Srebrenica and Rwanda, the Holocaust and other mass atrocities testify about the abuse of power of military leaders. The war in Bosnia lasted from 1992 to 1996. The ad hocInternational Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia was established in 1993 in order to judge the crimes committed against the Muslim population, the women – victims of rape and discrimination and abandoned children. The Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in 1995 in order to cease the violent conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina and achieve the mission of permanent peace. The International Community and mainly the blue helmets sent by the UN Peacekeeping mission failed to protect the civilians in the Bosnian War. A decade later, in 2005 more precisely, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a notion was coined. The philosophy behind the concept Humanitarian Intervention comprehends the level of international assistance for a peculiar country where war takes place. The interdependency among these two notions gives a common sense of legal unity in times of conflict.

Reconciliation and Memorialisation – instruments of post-war methodology

Reconciliation and Memorialisation in the Bosnian case was a long lasting and painful process. The Children Square, the Museum of Childhood, the monument of the Eternal Flame, the Sarajevo Roses are some of the many memorial spots in Bosnia. The reconciliation as a process requires the existence of various established Truth Commissions that will evaluate the gravity of the mass atrocities and grant reparations to the victims survivors and their families. The elements of transitional justice are combined with the ones of restorative justice. Granting reparations and monetary compensations are state mechanisms and instruments that give to the citizens of a peculiar state a sense of belongingness and an image of a stable criminal system that detects inconsistencies and persecute perpetrators, but never truly erases the psychological and traumatic feelings of the horrors of the war. Thus, transitional justice is related to the emergence of a new conception of the society, based on a new model where there is room for reforms in the political, economic and social sector. The reforms carried out present a relatively new vision of the betterment of the legal system where human rights are preserved and properly implemented. Transitional Justice societies are sensitive communities where collective trauma reigns even in the aftermath of a conflict. Conflicts generally last for a short period, but reconciliation takes a very long time to be sustained. The universal character of the ad hoc tribunals reflects the international understanding of judging and persecuting collectively the perpetrators. The International Criminal Court is an international institution that is recognised by many countries. If some countries didn’t ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, there is a problem of legal discontentment. Basically, in that countries, the International Criminal Court has no legal means to intervene. On the European soil, the citizens whose country didn’t ratify the treaty of the Rome Statute, can only seek justice in the European Court of Human Rights characterised as a jurisdiction of the last resort especially after the applicant has exhausted all domestic remedies. The paradigm of transitional justice requires finding a political balance by making compromises and setting up a dialogue rather than an immediate negative discourse. The restoration of the social values and the recuperation of the dignity of the individuals are the main features of the process of reconciliation (instruments of post-war methodology).

The inclusion of Women as local peace mediators

Many of the women survivors of the war are contributors of a positive change. The role of women is indispensable in the process of healing from the terrible traumatic experiences. Plenty of women join NGOs as legal experts in order to cooperate with foreign institutions and contribute for the realisation of international projects that improve significantly the proper functioning of the state apparatus. Thus, the main goal of the international cooperation is to implement an amicable approach of tolerance that will avoid the emergence of a conflict, forge bridges of peace and foster hope. One of the main components of Women’s contribution to Peacebuilding is teaching students and adults by providing a non-formal education about the rule of law, human rights and social

co-existence based on solidarity, especially in the Bosnian case of ethnic fragmentation and political intolerance. Such efforts undertaken by many Women serve as an example for emancipation as a result of the painful captivity of the war. The emancipation is a form of liberation in the peaceful pathway of attaining freedom. The era of Women’s leadership emerged. The perception of the traditional role of the women has vanished. Women were no longer perceived as citizens of second rank only taking care of the house and the children. A manifestation of a political participation, raising the voice of many voiceless women-victims and war survivors changed the destiny of the transitional justice. Generally, during a war only men fight on the battlefield. Many women become widows. In this case, the Women become heads of the households. The 20th century revolutionised the era of science. Women generally didn’t attend school classes. Unfortunately, some of them didn’t know how to read and write. The subjugation and subordination that women suffered over the course of many centuries was a direct consequence of the superiority of men. Women, by quenching the thirst of knowledge and by overcoming the obstacles and fears, could obtain a total emancipation in the political sphere especially at the end of the 20th century and more significantly in the course of the 21st century. Thus, since them, Women are mediators in various local peace projects. They act locally in order to achieve their mission on a wider scale in the national and global sphere of power.

The resistance against populism

Populism has divided the political scene of many countries. Resistance unifies the opinions of the mass of people as an instrument of revolt in the process of combatting populism. Recently, on July 23rd, Alexandria Ocasio – Cortez (a Democrat), a New York Representative, has condemned the negative behaviour and rhetorics of Mr.Yoho (A Republican) in the Congress. Moreover, Mr.Yoho has publicly offended Mrs. Alexandria Cortez by using inappropriate words in an official institution such as the Congress where laws are enacted by the legislators. The Congress is not a place for giving personal opinions, but for proposing legal solutions and modifying, updating or improving the quality of existing laws. Populism is generally categorised as a left-wing and a right-wing. Both types of populism create diverse dichotomies. The resistance is a methodology frequently used by the people as a reaction. For example, the massive protests in Sarajevo that occurred in 2008 against the privatisation of many local firms, the rate of poverty and the increased level of unemployment. A protest is a portrayal of people’s discontentment. Challenging the authority of the political leaders is the primary counter attack towards populism. This challenge is the primary contestation serving as a warning. A sudden popular earthquake or simply a riot endangers the political scene. It is a ‘wake up call’ for the holders of power. The American politician, Dr. Cornel West, qualifies this as a ‘a failed social experiment’2that signifies that institutions are dormant, and only they wake up when people start to protest. A social rebellion is always justified when people start to feel ‘hungry’ for the enjoyment of their rights and liberties. A limited democracy is the one who poses restrictions for the people. In another words, a limited democracy is a a soft form of authoritarianism. In recent years, in Europe there is a rise of authoritarian populism where the basic values of human rights are violated by few politicians occupying illegitimately the high positions of the political spectrum. With authoritarian populism there is a limited and paralysed sovereignty. A peculiar historical example is the one of the French Revolution. The policy of the King Louis XVIII was characterised by an overwhelming taxation, high price of the bread and other products. The people of the Third Estate regularly protested. The Queen’s Marie-Antoinette ironical response was: “if the price of the bread is high, then ‘Let them eat cake’. (Qu’ils mangent de la brioche)”3. Thus, the cake was cheaper than the bread. The Women’s March on Versailles launched the French Revolution. It is an example of a royal populism to some extent because the King was granting only privileges to the nobility, but not to the people. Overtime, populism did change its essence. The post-modern type of populism is more oriented towards the decline of democratic values. Another two relevant examples are the recent protests in Belgrade and Belarus where the brutality of the police was severely condemned.

The testimonies of Women – victims of the War

Inger Skjelsbæk, a Norwegian scholar, collected many testimonies of Women – victims of the War. She classified the accounts of many Women into two categories. In the first category women are perceived as ethnic survivors, while in the second category as gendered victims. Berina, Ceca, Emila, Azra and Danira are the Women who voluntarily shared their story. Azra’s dream was to see the perpetrators punished in front of the International Criminal Court of Yugoslavia in The Hague: “I want them to be punished for that. They could have killed me, and I do not know why they did not. Maybe it was God’s will or destiny – I do not know – but I want them to be responsible for what they did to me, because those things that happened to me are criminal things. They are crimes against humanity”4.

From another side, living with the image of being a survivor is a trauma that will never heal. Azra states that the life after the war is an exam that cannot be passed, a chapter that is impossible to forget because it is considered to be a constant failure: “If I survived 1992, I can survive anything! I feel like a survivor, but the situation in Bosnia now is very uncertain. You know, it is very confusing [she cries]. You can survive something – yes, definitely I survived and therefore I am survivor – but I live my life from a distance, without really knowing where I am going with my life”5.

On the other hand, the encounter with the family members and revealing the truth of the painful past is a very difficult task to do in the word of Emila: “My mother gets some money after my brother who died, and she is also trying to get some money from my father. But there are many problems, because they were civilian victims of war”6Being a civil victim of the war is a painful new identity. Coping with the brutal reality of the institutional collapse is not an award for a civil victim of the war, but a second tragedy.

Emila is very well depicting the notion of a totally collapsed state apparatus (dormant institutional framework):“The authorities are deaf and blind to what has happened (there) when they force us to leave the house we live in now and move back to our houses that have completely burned. […] I understand that everyone has a right to property and everything else, but I cannot understand why I and all the people who experienced all the things still have to suffer. I suffered a lot and I am still suffering. […] Nobody gave us any form of compensation…”7This statement perfectly reflects the slowness of justice or bureaucratic procedures.

The crimes that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina reflect the numerous Human Rights Abuses and the violations of the legal provisions of the Geneva Conventions, especially the ones of the Laws of the War. The violence that was detected in the war of Bosnia and Herzegovina is considered to be the worst type of crime committed after the World War II.


The prevention of conflict is one of the most sustainable ways of crafting peace. Nevertheless, identifying the source of the conflict is a mandatory feature that will cease the anger of the political fire. Reclaiming the enjoyment of the rights and liberties is perhaps the most logical request in a democratic society where the people are the unique holders of the sovereignty of the nation. Reconciliation, memorialisation, women’s contribution in local projects and the resistance against populism are some of the indispensable instruments for crafting peace that literally create the multifaceted aspects of conflicts. Populism is always an obstacle in the process of achieving peace.


  • Oliver P.Richmond, “The Evolution of the International Peace Conflict”, Department of Politics, University of Manchester, United Kingdom, pp. 4-9
  • Anthony Wanis, Suzanne Ghais: “International Conflict Resolution: From Knowledge to Practice and Back Again” , The Handbook of Conflict Resolution, January 2014, American University of Washington, pp. 2-14
  • Reinhard Heinisch, Oscar Mazzoleni, Christina Holtz – Bascha, “Political Populism”, A Handbook, Chapter 5, “Analysing and explaining populism: bringing frame, actor and context back in”, Nomos 2017, pp. 105-110.
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court:
  • Hristina Crenn, “Legitimising the role of Women in the Process of State Building in Post-Revolutionary France” – Journal issued by the Pravnik International Summer School of Sarajevo, International Journal of Rule of Law, Transitional Justice and Human Rights, Volume 10 – Year 10 – December 2019 – pages 67-74.
  • Skjelsbæk, Inger. (2006). Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Journal of Feminism & Psychology, pp. 373-398

1 Hans Kelsen ‘Pure Theory of Law’ (1934)

2 Expression from Dr.Cornel West – an American Politician

3 An expression from Marie-Antoinette, the Last Queen of France (1789)

4 Skjelsbæk, Inger. (2006). Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Journal of Feminism & Psychology,

5 Skjelsbæk, Inger. (2006). Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Journal of Feminism & Psychology,

6 Skjelsbæk, Inger. (2006). Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Journal of Feminism & Psychology,

7 Skjelsbæk, Inger. (2006). Victim and Survivor: Narrated Social Identities of Women Who Experienced Rape During the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Journal of Feminism & Psychology, pp.393

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