"We shall be justice!" said Charlotte Bunch, at the opening of the Women’s Court in Sarajevo which represents an alternative model of transitional justice which introduces a gender perspective into existing mechanisms of attainment of justice, this time based on feminist foundations.
The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration coincides with the 20th anniversary of the conclusion of wars which had led to a bloody dissolution of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “Transition” has become one of the most frequent and most hated words in the collective language the majority of the population of former Yugoslavia uses to understand each other, with varying results. At the same time, it represents the ever-present mantra and excuse for regional politicians when one is supposed to organize torn and unhealed fragments of a societal being tormented by war and post-war violence which, in specific ways and to the highest degree, affected women in this part of the world.
Women were victims of ethnically-based, militaristic, sexual, political and economic violence – one which was not met by the institutional judicial system with an adequate and comprehensive response. Even the just trials – as pointed out by feminist activists – meant no justice for the victims who are manifold traumatized, often during the very court processes. Hence the emerging necessity for new, alternative forms and models of justice that would ensure a secure space for the survivors’ testimonies, fully observing their human dignity and providing satisfaction they were unable to attain within the institutional judicial system.
It is against this backdrop that, from May 7th until May 10th 2015, Women’s Court – Feminist Approach to Justice was held in Sarajevo, an event which was prepared, at length, patiently and with dedication, by peace and feminist activists and theoreticians from the region and from all parts of the world, for more than ten years. At the same time, this is the first female court held in Europe.
Women’s Court does not deny the significance, results and successes of the institutional legal system, be those at the national or international level, respectively – moreover, it expresses an explicit demand for it. So, it does not aim to establish itself as its alternative, on the contrary. Women’s Court represents a complementary mechanism for the implementation of slow and too often unattainable justice craved for by thousands of women. This is a range of various initiatives and models, with the common goal to empower survivors through the transformation of their suffering into an articulate and politically relevant resistance, as well as to develop the local, national and international awareness of the long-term and horrific violation of the survivor’s human rights, but also the strength they manage to utilize in their struggle – which is often a successful one – for the rights they have been mercilessly deprived of. Women’s Courts indeed embody – as phrased by Duhaček – the public conscience of the community, i.e. our readiness to accept responsibility for what was, or what failed to be, done on our behalf.
That way, Women’s Court represents an alternative model of transitional justice which introduces a gender perspective into existing mechanisms of attainment of justice, this time based on feminist foundations. Why is this important? Mainly due to the fact that the women who have survived different forms of, at times, extreme, multiple and continuous violence, were later instrumentalized in the course of the trials. Many of them, by their own accounts, have experienced their appearance before the court as humiliating and degrading. They turned from objects of violence to objects of presenting evidence; from means of war they became means for the implementation of law, however not necessarily the realization of justice. Their voices were being controlled, limited, partially used, and their suffering remained either unrecognized and ignored, or – and this occurred all too frequently – manipulated and misused as the engine fuel for the very policies of ethno-nationalism and cultural racism which had caused their suffering to begin with.
The idea behind the Women’s Court is to provide a secure space for the women’s testimonies, for the voices of those deprived of their rights and silenced, in their own language and their own words, uninterruptedly, with understanding, compassion, observance and respect of a large number of women, but also men, who listen to them. The survivors’ testimonies as authentic, exemplary individual narrations are intended to be introduced into collective remembrance by means of their unfolding in a context highlighting and explaining their political relevance. This context is provided by associates of the Women’s Court, experts in different fields, who by no means represent an ad hoc jury that would deliver its “verdicts” from above, but rather participants of a decade-long process of organizing this event which helped themselves, too, to learn a lot and, together with the witnesses and activists, work on the production of new forms of knowledge and a new concept of justice.
The majority of women from Montenegro, where I come from, testified about economic violence against women, a form of structural violence conducted continuously and without exception by SFRY successor-states against their female citizens. As one of the experts pointed out, war represented foreplay for economic violence, the universal feature of the post-Yugoslav states which, instead of the expected advancement in the post-war period, saw a drastic impoverishment and frightening over-indebtedness. This was realized through the process of a plunder-based transition which, instead of being the economic basis of political transformation of the one-party system into parliamentary democracy, became a front for war-profiteering elites to transfer societal wealth into the hands of those who were in power and who had monopoly over privatizations. The highest price of transition and neoliberal globalization is paid by women through the loss of their labor rights, unpaid reproductive labor and spiraling poverty. These crimes were, for the most part, not processed by courts of law, unpunished and often sponsored by the practically privatized states.
Therefore, Women’s Court is not an end but rather a basis and support for the effort to transform women from objects of violence and enforcement of law into subjects of restorative justice and a more just history as the inevitable prerequisites of sustainable peace.