Blogbox | bosnia

Justice comes from squares, streets and citizens’ assemblies

By - 10.06.2020

Socioeconomic violence and justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Since 2014, I have spent a lot of time doing research in — and on — Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). I was interested in processes of dealing with past violence in the aftermath of the war, but after my previous studies on this, I was not convinced that war crimes trials could constitute the entirety of postwar justice processes in BiH.

In particular, I was interested in the socioeconomic consequences of the war, the context in which postwar economic reforms were promoted, and how this linked back to people’s experiences of the war. As I was starting out with the project, the February 2014 protests made it very clear that this was still an important issue for Bosnian people and activists.

Begun in Tuzla, the demonstrations spread rapidly across the country and enabled public discussions around socioeconomic issues and the political economy that had been marginalized by political elites throughout the postwar period.

After many years of work, the most important part of this research will be published in my book “Socio Economic Justice: International Intervention and Transition in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina,” coming in June.

Stories from Prijedor and Zenica

My research in Bosnia focused on three things:

  • How communities experienced socioeconomic violence during the war (and how this injustice was protracted throughout the transition);
  • How these experiences translated into justice claims and social mobilization;
  • What role did the international community play in these processes, looking at the socioeconomic side of transitional justice interventions, and at the justice implications of economic interventions by International Financial Institutions (IFIs).

To address the first two questions, I carried out interviews with people in Prijedor and Zenica. I chose these two cities because I wanted to focus on industrial towns that were variously affected by the conflict. 

Socioeconomic violence is commonly treated only as context, as a by-product rather than as an essential part of the wartime events.

The fact that the two cities were also part of the same steel supply chain was also particularly important, especially since ArcelorMittal bought both parts of the Prijedor iron ore mines and the steel mill in Zenica during their privatization. 

The research showed that socioeconomic violence in the form of dispossession, dismissals, deprivation and marginalization was central to people’s experience of the war and overlapped and intersected in various ways with other forms of violence. 

This may seem obvious to those who lived through the war, but this form of violence — socio economic violence — is commonly treated only as context, as a byproduct rather than as an essential part of the wartime events and marginalized in transitional justice debates. 

This narrow understanding of violence then influences how remedies to violence — that is, justice — are defined and implemented. 

My interviews showed that people in Prijedor and Zenica want justice to be done through redistribution, calling for workers rights, participation in economic decision making, and welfare. 

In Prijedor, that would mean offering meaningful employment opportunities and labor rights to those who were fired from their jobs in 1992 on the basis of ethnic discrimination (and effectively as a first step toward ethnic cleansing). 

Justice processes

For people in Zenica, it would mean being involved in discussions around the future of the steel mill, including both economic and environmental concerns. 

However, justice processes after the war mostly focused on a narrow, legalistic or judicial understanding of postwar justice, to be pursued through war crimes trials in The Hague and in BiH. Even other transitional justice programs, such as war-related payments or return programs, did not adequately address the legacies of socio economic violence. 

Adding to this, the postwar transition was shaped by the reforms promoted by IFIs like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and later by the EU as well. These reforms — privatization, liberalization, reduction of welfare spending — effectively constrained the possibility of achieving socio economic justice as called for by people I talked to in Prijedor and Zenica. 

Looking at the political economy of the conflict and transition is in fact essential to gain an understanding of justice issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and likely elsewhere).

What is important to note is that discussions of postwar justice do not commonly analyze the involvement of IFIs in these processes. In fact, their work is seen as belonging to a separate economic sphere governed by market outcomes rather than justice considerations. 

This research clearly shows that we need to breakdown these unhelpful divides between seemingly “technical” economic matters on the one hand, and questions of justice and fairness on the other. Looking at the political economy of the conflict and transition is in fact essential to gain an understanding of justice issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and likely elsewhere). 

This connection between justice and political economy was also clearly visible in protest movements such as the plenums of 2014. While socio economic justice claims remained unaddressed by IFIs and transitional programs alike, grassroots activist groups and Bosnian citizens brought them to the forefront of public debate. 

Through an analysis of these events and based on interviews with activists all around Bosnia, I believe that justice processes are to be found not just in courtrooms but in our squares, in street protests and in citizens’ assemblies. This research hopes to highlight a less explored but crucial aspect of postwar justice and Bosnia’s experience with it, and to support people’s attempts to achieve socio economic justice today. 

Feature image: Daniela Lai