Acting as UNHCRs Implementing partner for over a decade, Association „Vasa prava BiH“ with UNHCRs continuing support has played a key role in making asylum seekers and refugees, as well as other vulnerable people rights become effective.
The importance of NGOs’ role in protecting refugees was recognized by the UN General Assembly when, in adopting UNHCR’s Statute, it called on the High Commissioner to establish contact with “private organizations” (now known as NGOs) dealing with refugees issues and to help coordinate the efforts of those organizations.
The international community struggles with the challenge of repairing the harms that haunt post-conflict societies, including restoring the homes, property and other kinds of well-being of traumatized populations. The work of Vasa prava BiH that has helped heal such wounds in Bosnia-Herzegovina by providing legal services to the vulnerable and disadvantaged constitutes case lessons of success in a difficult context. Yet, so much need to be done.
Given the enduring legacy of the war and the multitude of economic, social and political challenges ahead, what difference can a relatively small legal aid NGO make? This article argues that Vasa prava BiH is a vital, and perhaps necessary, part of the solution to the country’s problems. Particularly considering the failure of political leadership, creating a culture of rights in which all citizens are treated equally by a responsive government can only come about through active involvement by citizens themselves. For poor and marginalized people, which in BiH includes a substantial portion of the population, active involvement is hard to achieve without assistance. Vasa prava BiH provides that assistance.
Vasa prava BiH have developed strong network of legal professional that are providing legal aid and assistance in all proceedings related to issues of asylum and refugee protection, IDPs and returnees. In the last decade, over 450.000 vulnerable people throughout the county have addressed Vasa prava BiH offices with legal issues varied from a simple legal mater to most complicated cases requiring professional assistance. This figure speaks of important role to ensure vulnerable individual and groups have access to justice.
Legal issues have been dealt in a principle manner to make sure that legal standards are met in order to make people of concerns effectively exercise their rights. Civil legal assistance is provided in almost all areas of concern to poor and marginalized people.
Over the past years strong connection have been established with local legislators, government, administration and judiciary, all of it aiming to ensure all stakeholders are fully committed to sustain vulnerable people and their access to rights.
The core functions of Vasa prava BiH are to educate people about their rights, provide advice and representation, and work for systemic change on behalf of all disadvantaged people in BiH. Vasa prava BiH is the only legal services organization operating throughout the country. Most of our work involves providing direct legal assistance to individuals, which gives us a significant amount of information about the problems people face. Vasa prava BiH beneficiaries are the poorest; most disenfranchised and excluded members of society.
Our work has proven to be essential and of crucial importance as to guaranty individual rights. Vasa prava BiH works domestically and with international institutions (BiH Courts, relevant ministries, and local Legislative bodies, European Court of Human Rights, UN Comities etc.) to defend and ensure protection for the most vulnerable people in the country. Vasa prava BiH significance comes as much from the way it provides services as the type of cases it does. We do everything from publishing brochures to presenting cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Much of work involves letting people know of their rights. The idea that people have rights and can actually do things to enforce them is a new concept for many in Bosnia. Simply getting the word out is an important task.
Equal justice for all cannot be achieved without the poor and disadvantaged having a voice in the system. Vasa prava BiH work helps those voices to be heard.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not the only country struggling with its past. While each country has its own unique history, the lessons learned from Vasa prava BiH work suggest the need for international support for similar organizations wherever rebuilding efforts are underway. More broadly, the Vasa prava BiH experience shows that legal advice, representation and advocacy can hold governments to account for meeting the needs poor and disenfranchised. That lesson applies everywhere.
On behalf of those in need that we protect, we are grateful to UNHCRs long lasting relations and continuing supporting, without whom we could not achieve this much.
In our future work, we remain committed to make human rights effective by protecting those in need.
It is our legacy toward BiH accession to EU.