Legal Recognition of Children Born of War: A Long-Awaited Step Forward

Author: Amina Hujdur

In July 2022, a historic step forward in the fight for the recognition of children born of war[1] was taken when the Brčko District of BiH became the first in Bosnia and Herzegovina to legally recognise children born of wartime rape as civilian victims of war, under the framework of the newly adopted Law on Civilian Victims of War. It was then that the existence of these children, and hence the challenges and consequences of wartime rape on their lives, became legally recognised. However, the first legal response to the needs of children born of war raised a number of questions about the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that we can expect in the ongoing struggle for the recognition of this category of victims in the rest of BiH.

For many years, BiH has been deafeningly silent on the existence and issues of children born of war and their mothers, survivors of wartime rape. Rape victims and their children typically cope alone, without additional support, with the devastating consequences of wartime rape, which can include psychological, physical, economic, and social problems. As a result, children born of war were often stigmatized and marginalized as they grew older, subjected to peer violence and overall social rejection. One of the first steps toward social recognition occurred in 2006, with the release of the film “Grbavica”, directed by Jasmila Žbanić, which made the majority of the BiH public, as well as an international audience, aware of the consequences of wartime sexual violence on survivors and their families. The struggle for recognition was almost entirely led, and continues to be led, by civil society – activists, experts, victims’ association representatives, journalists, and other human rights defenders. A few years later, a group of survivors and activists founded the Association “Forgotten Children of War” to advocate for the inclusion of children born of war. With the first publicly shared experiences of these children, such as those of Ajna Jusić and Alen Muhić, the struggle for social and legal recognition took on new dimensions. The number of children born of wartime rape is unknown to this day. Some of the children were raised by their mothers, some were placed in foster care before being adopted, and some were even taken to other countries. Even today, the vast majority of children are unaware of their origins.

After years of neglect, the Brčko District of BiH made the first, historic step of legally recognising the existence of children born of war in July 2022, thanks to the advocacy efforts of TRIAL International and the Association “Forgotten Children of War”. This step was mostly symbolic in its nature, because the children, aside from the status of civilian victim of war, have not been granted any special rights under the Law, such as priority in receiving education or scholarships. Furthermore, some children are unable to obtain the status because recognition is limited only to children whose mothers have already obtained the status of wartime rape victims, which excludes all other children whose mothers did not apply for this status, as well as children born of wartime rape who do not know their biological mothers. Nonetheless, this initial recognition paved the way for such future initiatives. In the same month, the FBiH Government adopted the Draft Law on Protection of Civilian Victims of War, which recognises children as a special category of civilian victims of war. While this Draft Law differs significantly from the BDBiH Law in that it provides for children’s rights to priority employment, priority housing, psychological and legal assistance, and does not condition children’s status on the status of their mothers, it still fails to address support during education. The public debate on the Draft Law ended in September this year, and the FBiH Ministry of Labour and Social Policy is now working to revise the legal text.

However, the international response and favourable feedback that accompanied the first legal recognition of children born of war were well-deserved. The BDBiH’s action made BiH one of only three countries in the world to legally recognise children born of war (Norway and Colombia were first to do so), and the first in the region to address the issue of children born of wars following the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. First, the newly adopted Law responds to the recommendations from the 2022 United Nations Report of the Secretary-General, which calls on countries to guarantee certain rights to children born of war. Furthermore, the BDBiH Law is a response to the 2021 Joint Statement of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, as well as the 2019 UN Security Council Resolution on the protection of and assistance to “children born as a result of sexual violence in conflict and their mothers”. Furthermore, legal recognition of children born of war reflects International Criminal Court decisions from 2021, which determine that children born of rape and sexual slavery are direct victims of these crimes and have the right to reparation. Chief prosecutor Karim Khan personally applauded the BDBiH’s “momentous step” and stated that “such children will be given special consideration in the investigations and prosecutions by my office.”

The legal recognition of children born of war is a positive indication on BiH’s path towards the European Union. Enabling the granting of this status for the first time in BiH might be considered a step forward in the fulfilment of 14 key priorities. Progress, more specifically, relates to priority number 5. “Take concrete steps to promote an environment conducive to reconciliation in order to overcome the legacies of the war” and key priority no. 13. “Improve the protection and inclusion of vulnerable groups, in particular persons with disabilities, children, LGBTI persons, members of the Roma community, detainees, migrants and asylum seekers, as well as displaced persons and refugees in line with the objective of closure of Annex VII of the Dayton Peace Agreement”.

After years of struggle, it appears that the issue of children born of war has finally received the attention it has long deserved. Great efforts will be required to rectify the wrongs committed against children born of war and their mothers, but these first legislative initiatives are a step forward to achieving that goal. BiH still has a lot of work to do. First and foremost, it is critical to ensure that the adoption of the Law on Protection of Civilian Victims of War in FBiH, under which the greatest number of children from BiH would exercise their rights, meets all the needs of children born of war. This can only be done in consultation with the children and their mothers. Furthermore, the legal solution must be adopted in the entity of Republika Srpska, and the BDBiH Law on Civilian Victims of War needs to be revised to address its current shortcomings. To truly feel the benefits of these efforts, it is the obligation of all BiH citizens to do everything possible to ensure these children’s inclusion and fight against the still-present stigmatization.

[1] Note: In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the term “children born of war” includes the category of children born of wartime rape, as well as children whose fathers are members of peacekeeping forces and/or international humanitarian mission workers. In the context of this analysis, the term “children born of war” refers to children born of wartime rape, as stipulated by the BDBiH Law on Civilian Victims of War and the Draft Law on Protection of Civilian Victims of War in FBiH.

The views expressed in this text do not necessarily reflect the views of the Initiative for Monitoring European Integration’s members or the Initiative itself.