XIV Forum for Transitional Justice in post-Yugoslav Countries – Keynote Address by Nataša Kandić
This year I have the special privilege of opening the XIV Forum for Transitional Justice in Post-Yugoslav Countries. My first task is to explain why this year’s Forum has been titled “Disrupted Reconciliation”, and then also to answer this additional question, “How to proceed?”. Why? There are several reasons that have led to this year’s Forum bearing this name.
The basic reason is that the long march of the civic initiative for establishing an interstate regional commission for establishing the facts of war crimes and victims, has ended with the withholding of political support. This process, this initiative, was launched in 2006. For years we developed a regional approach to confronting the past, with different groups, different victims’ associations from throughout the territory of the former Yugoslavia, without political involvements but with international support, and in 2011 we succeeded in adopting a useful and satisfactory document containing the tasks and goals of that anticipated regional interstate commission. One of the most important tasks was to list all the victims at the regional level and to ensure this would be an important element, and we thought that it was the only possible element for the shared remembrance of the past, of a common element in our history. After 2011, when we adopted this document as the Regional Coalition, we started advocating for political support, and it seemed to us – we were surprised – that there was support. At the time we did not realise that verbal support is the least reliable, and that if there is no action – if it is not followed by actions – then we would get to a situation where we would lose that support. The greatest support – but this is difficult now even to imagine, let alone get back to recovering it – but the greatest support came from Croatia. At the time, Prof. Dr. Ivo Josipović was the President of Croatia. In human rights activist circles, within associations that dealt with democracy and transitional justice, we considered and respected him as the leader of the regional approach to confronting the past and the leader of regional reconciliation. We also had support from Montenegro, and that support from Montenegro was always equally strong and equally honest. All the other supports, one has to say, proved to be quite unreliable.
And then, from 2015, our everyday life started to change in a political sense, and also on the practical plane, so to say. Croatia opted for a national approach in confronting the past. At the same time, Slovenia had an even stronger reason not to participate and not to provide political support, using the argument that war crimes had not taken place in the Slovenian space, and that Slovenia had nothing to do with the crimes that took place in the territories of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Metohija, and Macedonia. What happened is that we had slowly, gradually come to the point where even those that strongly supported it – the Bosniak and Croat Mebers of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina – withdrew their support, with the arguments that the political priorities are regional stability, security, that the victims are known, that everyone in the world knows who the victims are, and that it is not necessary to address old topics and old questions. Of course, there is also Republika Srpska, the entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has never taken part in the regional cooperation, believing regional cooperation to be aimed always against the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs in Serbia, and the Serbs in other parts of the former Yugoslavia; and that actually hardened this position of nonparticipation in the regional approach to confronting the past, with the view that the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia were primarily aimed against the Serbs, and that this entity – the institutions of this entity – would therefore not recognize the judgements of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The year 2019 was crucial, when this initiative with the long march – actually lost political support. At the time, in 2019, we passed a decision to stop trying to convince politicians who are unreliable, who actually have a different orientation, i.e. who keep going back to everything that marked the 1990s, since it is difficult to constantly start anew with the advocacy;, and that the commission should be interregional, and official, and that it is our task as human rights organizations and academics to use our knowledge, expertise and what we have documented over the years to help the work of such a commission. At a session of the Assembly of the Coalition for RECOM we decided to rename the coalition andfor it to be the RECOM Reconciliation Network, and to continue documenting the victims within our capacities, and to start monitoring the situation, whether there would be any political changes in the region of the former Yugoslavia.
The second reason for this topic – Disrupted Reconciliation – is the threat to the establishment of the rule of law, through non-prosecution and the marginalisation of criminal justice; and – which is also important – the need to create a special climate where the present-day current priorities and goals are recognized as goals and tasks that we have already seen, faced and experienced in the 1990s. Also important – the non-acceptance of the judgements of the International Court of Justice for the former Yugoslavia and the judgements of the International Court of Justice. These are facts we are seeing daily, which we are being convinced of daily from the highest positions by presidents of states, prime ministers and ministers, who are saying increasingly frequently and loudly that the judgements of the International Court of Justice for the former Yugoslavia are aimed in one case against one side, and in another case against the other– but that this is no longer binding for the leaders of the post-Yugoslav countries, the leaders of the Western Balkans.
The third reason for this topic is – and we are witnesses to this – that remembrance policies are in the hands of the political elites, the oligarchies, and that there is no space for academic knowledge or historical facts or court facts. Another factor that is very important for this topic is the glorification of war criminals convicted primarily for genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes. This glorification has reached such an extent that public spaces in all the countries of the former Yugoslavia are filled with reverence for those who were convicted of the most serious war crimes, who were convicted of genocide, as well as for those who were on some lists as participants in joint criminal enterprises, or about whom there was evidence that was presented in the trials before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. They today fill the public space. There are no scientists who are important – it is now those who were the leaders during the 1990s who are important. We can see this primarily in Serbia. If you walk around town today, you will see in many places murals Ratko Mladić, but you will also see numerous murals and graffiti crossed out with figures by the painter Kazimir Maljevič; which means that there is resistance – but that small, civic resistance, the resistance of antifascists, which in fact can hardly overcome what is being created by certain groups supported by institutions.
And what remains now is for me to answer the question, “How to proceed?” Do we, as the organisers, have an answer, or are we expecting the panellists and all of you, the participants, to come up with one or multiple answers? In this sense, I would mention two opinions that can be identified also in the academic community, which should be seriously considered and kept in mind during these two days.
I would point to the opinion of a university professor from Sarajevo, who has spoken about it being difficult to expect reconciliation in this region in the foreseeable future. He also speaks and writes about it, presenting very clear arguments on how difficult it is to achieve reconciliation through imposed solutions. On the other hand, another professor, from the university in Rijeka, speaks about how there is actually no alternative to reconciliation, regardless of how many labyrinths there are – that is, it must continue. He has in mind European Union resolutions, United Nations resolutions, and we could say that some of these resolutions – especially the United Nations resolutions – were by their nature forcing confrontation with the past. There is one more relevant opinion that should be kept in mind, and that is that we are in a situation where we can see the results of the work of these political elites, i.e. the oligarchies, every day. The denial of crimes, of genocide, of crimes against humanity, actually requires the solidarity of the new generations with the crimes committed; and Prof. Zoran Pajić says in some of his texts and presentations that actually that is the way the political elites, the political oligarchies, have succeeded in drawing new generations into the crimes of the previous generations, and that this is a situation that can hardly be resolved at this moment, in this situation and with this political climate in the countries in the region of the former Yugoslavia.
Today we expect also to hear from professors, members of academies, and we have activistse on the ground/, we have families, members of victims’ families, we have victims who are not in victims’ associations but appear in a new role – not as representatives, as victims of a certain ethnic community, but as victims of war crimes. We will have the opportunity to see a film this afternoon, after the final sessions, which in a special way makes precisely the point of this question whether a victim is only one who has an ethnic code, or whether s/he also has other characteristics. We will also have the opportunity to hear Ivana Bodrožić, who will speak about whether the ethnic code is the only feature of the victim or whether some other features are important, ones which we are not talking about or mentioning , while everyone has accepted what the political elites are suggesting and saying every day – which is that there are only ethnic victims and nothing else.
I am opening the XIV Forum for Transitional Justice in Post-Yugoslav Countries. I invite the participants of the first panel “Behind the Corner of Human Rights Activists, and About Them” to start a debate.