9th International Forum for Transitional Justice – Report


Reconciliation in post-Yugoslav countries


The 9th International Forum for Transitional Justice, titled “Reconciliation in post-Yugoslav countries”, was hosted by the Coalition for RECOM on May 17 and 18, 2013, on Mount Jahorina, B&H. The event gathered some 220 representatives of various civil society organizations, victims’ associations, religious and scientific communities, as well individual artists, journalists, etc. Over the course of the debate, each of them provided a unique perspective on the progress of post-conflict reconciliation.

The first to take the floor was B&H Presidency member Željko Komšić. Advocating for regional reconciliation, he described it as a crucial prerequisite of normal life for the region’s ordinary citizens. “People just want to lead normal, ordinary lives. They need jobs that put food on the table and, most of all, they need hope for a better future for their children. Without reconciliation, equality and economic progress, such a hope will be hard to fulfill”, said Mr. Komšić at the opening of the 9th Forum.. His belief was that the people of the former Yugoslavia had been closely connected, and that the war had broken not only their social relationships, but their hearts as well. “18 years after the war, this issue is still on the agenda, and one must ask how long it actually takes to bring about regional reconciliation. Has the waiting, in fact, been too short, rather than too long? I hope the Forum will help us find the answers to these questions”, said Mr. Komšić.

Nataša Kandić, the person who originally started the Initiative, emphasized that naming the victims provided a framework for their public acknowledgement. “It needs to be accompanied by victims’ public testimonies about the suffering they endured. The voice of ethnic Albanians must be heard in Belgrade, and that of ethnic Serbs in Prishtina. The RECOM Initiative can help defuse tensions in the region, and its potential stems from the people it gathers together.”

Theater director Dino Mustafić[1] was of the belief that the region’s governments and their policies continued to manipulate the facts and glorify indicted war criminals, rather than seek justice for the victims. “They are trying to use the problems of our past to justify all their present failures”, warned Mustafić, adding that anyone who points out this fact immediately becomes “a target of vulgar nationalist and fascist ideologies”.

Professor Žarko Puhovski[2] offered a critical reflection on the region’s recent history, claiming it was not being written on the basis of the facts, since they had been distorted and made to conform to “patriotic historical narratives” – something that, if left unchecked, would only re-ignite the conflict. “In the light of that, the task of the region’s intellectuals is not to prosecute perpetrators, but to shame them instead”, stressed Puhovski.

Eric Gordy[3] warned that culture was often used to proliferate those narratives that served the narrow interests of specific actors and their policies, and that, for this very reason, the region’s politicians chose to support the nationalist brand of culture exclusively. He also pointed to some disturbing trends in the processes of Transitional Justice taking place in the region – particularly the ICTY Appeals Chamber’s acquittals of Gotovina, Haradinaj and Perišić, which, he claimed, were likely to deepen the controversy surrounding the Tribunal’s work, since its arguments placed the presumed rights of the state above the interests of the victims.

Professor Zoran Pajić[4] warned that the debate on reconciliation had preceded the debate about the various mechanisms of Transitional Justice, implying that “reconciliation had become the subject of debate in the region, long before any of the conditions for reconciliation had actually been met”. Within this context, Pajić also spoke about official apologies made by some of the region’s leaders, describing them as “premature”. He pointed to the fact that denazification (and partial reparation) had already taken place by the time Chancellor Willy Brandt knelt before the monument to the victims of Auschwitz. “What is most important”, he claimed, “is that all of that came before the apologies. Today, we have narcissistic, arrogant leaders, and their denials and justifications of war crimes still loom in the public sphere; the victims do not see their apologies as genuine, because they expect the politicians to portray them very differently once they return home.” Pajić also expressed reservations about erecting monuments to the victims – all of those he had seen in B&H (except for a single monument in Sarajevo) were “ethnically biased, bearing horrible messages of hate directed at other ethnic groups”. Professor Pajić concluded by calling for the development of mechanisms for victim compensation, and warned that a recent survey had shown that 80% of all B&H citizens “still lived in the past” (although he did find some encouragement in the fact that roughly half of those surveyed expressed support for inter-ethnic dialogue).

Denisa Kostovicova[5] agreed with the opinion that the apologies had been made “prematurely”, possibly leading to their rejection. She also noticed that, while all of post-Yugoslav was witnessing “a reduction in denial, none of the states truly wish to deal with the crimes of the past”.

The representatives of religious communities in B&H taking part in the Forum emphasized the importance of reconciliation from a confessional standpoint. Friar Ivan Šarčević, PhD[6], stressed that religious communities and believers above all other persons, bore a responsibility to work towards the reconciliation required of them by their very faith – not just for moral and political, but metaphysical reasons as well.

Sarajevo’s Mufti Husein Effendi Smajić[7] described the reconciliation process in B&H as “going in the right direction”, noting that ordinary religious believers had a great capacity for understanding reconciliation: “Here, in the Islamic Community, we understand that without reconciliation (and the preceding dialogue with all who wish to accept B&H as their homeland), there can be no future. We will persevere in our efforts to overcome all existing and potential obstacles to reconciliation and dialogue.”

Vanja Jovanović[8], Sarajevo’s Serbian Orthodox Presbyter, pointed out that, at their core, all faiths advocated tolerance and the acceptance of others. Despite that, he saw reconciliation as a lengthy process, since man “was not a machine or a project, and could not be forced or ordered to reconcile”.

Jakob Finci, on of the leaders of the Jewish community in B&H, expressed the belief that “before we discussed reconciliation, we should first talk about trust”. He recounted an anecdote about two Jews who had decided to reconcile after a long dispute. “The first one said: ‘I wish for you what you wish for me.’ The other immediately replied: ‘Why is that, do you want to start fighting all over again?’ ” Finci added that such dishonesty might possibly describe “our own future predicament”, and called for greater tolerance of other cultures and acceptance of the truth.

Professor Zdravko Grebo[9] assessed that the time had come for the politicians to accept responsibility for the process of reconciliation and its outcome. “We’ve gotten as far as we can go. The civil society can go no further on its own. The only thing left for us to do, is to lobby the heads of our states to accept this initiative. If they back it, we will have a reason to hope that our children will some day get to see us agree on, at the very least, the most basic of facts about the war. That would make their lives with each other easier”, said Grebo, RECOM’s public advocate from B&H.

Publicist Spomenka Hribar[10] reminded us that some victims were being glorified, while others were being ignored, and that this had been the case throughout the region’s history. “Until we bury each and every victim, that is, until we stop discriminating between them, there will be no peace… In order to develop such an attitude towards others, we must first have compassion awakened in us. Compassion and empathy, not pity. Another person is exactly that – just a person, prone to sin and making mistakes. Should a person’s sinful nature transform into violence directed at others, then, of course, it would need to be punished. Compassion is the “investment” here – if I may be allowed to use such a profane word – it is an “investment” in the future… Compassion is what draws the line between a time of conflict, and a time of peace. Grief and regret enable us to distance ourselves from the past, and to critically reflect on it. They represent an investment in future coexistence”, Spomenka Hrbar said in conclusion.

Tonči Stančić[11], a designated representative of the President of Croatia, said that facing the past and shedding light on the roles of individuals and institutions in the Yugoslav conflict was a key factor in establishing regional cooperation and stability. “The burdens of our past make it hard to move forward, and moving quickly harder still”, said Stančić, stressing that war crimes trials should not be the only instrument of reconciliation and stabilization. According to him, trials are simply not sufficient to ensure a full measure of justice for the victims, or to ensure that their voices are heard. “Victims must not continue to be perceived as mere numbers – their names must be known, their identities established”, said Stančić, adding that there were 1,705 missing persons still unaccounted for in Croatia.

Bojan Glavašević[12], addressing the forum on behalf of the Croatian government, noted that, when he visited the Defense Ministry about a year and half ago, he was informed that 1,756 missing persons were still being actively searched for. “As of this day, the Republic of Croatia is still looking for 1,703 of its missing citizens”, said Glavašević. In his speech, he placed a particular emphasis on “the work of his government aimed at preventing ethnic and other forms of discrimination”, describing it as “very interesting and significant” because “the missing had previously been split into two (ethnically related) categories – those that went missing between 1991 and 1994, and those that went missing afterwards”. “Such a distinction is now completely irrelevant – the only thing that matters is that now we are actively searching for all missing citizens of Croatia”, said Glavašević. He also noted that Croatia would adopt a law addressing the victims of sexual violence perpetrated during the Homeland War, and amend the Law on Civilian Casualties of War in order better to serve the victims’ interests. (He expects both pieces of legislation to be adopted in the first quarter of 2014).

Selim Selimi[13], the personal representative of the President of Kosovo, was of the opinion that the needs of the region demanded a joint effort aimed at establishing peace and achieving justice for the victims. “The need for justice is far more important than the courts themselves. We must do everything in our power to discover the fates of the missing”, Selimi insisted.

During the debate on Transitional Justice, Adriatik Kelmendi[14] (the editor-in-chief for Kosovo’s national Koha Vision TV station) added that the post-Yugoslav experience had taught us that reconciliation required an official political gesture – the acceptance of responsibility by the state, as well as mutual recognition of pain and suffering. “The mutual recognition of one another by some post Yugoslav states has been followed by the realization that the political establishment of diplomatic relations, by itself and without a consensus regarding the truth, simply does not suffice. Thus, reconciliation can only be achieved by walking on both feet, if it is agreed that limping is not the kind of future we would wish upon ourselves,” Kelmendi concluded.

Eugen Jakovčić of Documenta greeted the Forum on behalf of Drago Pilsel, a Christian theologian and journalist from Croatia, who managed to distance himself from the Ustaše ideology his family and childhood environment in Argentina had imposed upon him. In his letter (addressed to the Forum and read by Jakovčić), Pilsel recalled a public appeal made by the Croatian bishops on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII (May 1, 1995). The statement (signed by Cardinal Franjo Kuharić) contains, among other things, the following sentences: “The issue is not how to mourn the victims from our own community, nor how to recognize guilt in the communities of others. Croats and Serbs, Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims and others, are all faced with far greater moral dilemmas – namely, how to mourn the victims from another community and acknowledge the guilt in one’s own, how to atone for it and earn the forgiveness of both man and God, how to find peace of mind and help reconcile people and nations, how to usher in a new age, built upon truth and justice?”

Members of several victims’ associations also took part in the debate. Kada Hotić of the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Zepa Enclaves Association had this to say: “I have no desire to talk about culture, but I might have something to say about the lack of it. Having lost a son, a husband, two brothers and countless family and friends, I see no winners in this war. This land called Srpska is soaked with the blood of so many innocent victims. When I and those like myself say that it was built on genocide and the blood of our children, we are told that we have no culture, we are told that it’s a horrible thing to say, that it spreads nothing but hate and evil. But, to this day, I refuse to be told that I was born in Republika Srpska. I was born in Zvronik, in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Sudbin Musić reminded the participants of “what RECOM really is – a coalition of many individuals and organizations. Its strength comes from its members and, of course, the lengthy consultation process it has conducted, which has involved so many diverse groups.” He also saw a particular significance in “its ability to sustain contact between its public advocates and its many members.”

The testimony of Mirko Kovačić from Vukovar, a former detainee at the Stajićevo Camp in Serbia, was also very moving. He told the Forum how he had been imprisoned along with his son, and described how the two of them had been caring for another detainee suffering from diabetes. Mirko was 61 at the time. The detainee needed medicine and daily massages, and Mirko and his son Darko were taking care of him with the knowledge of Miroslav Živanović, the camp’s commander at the time. When paramilitaries started to invade the camp on a regular basis, the commander decided to move him, along with five other sick detainees, to a safer place – a room located at the other end of the camp. “The order saved their lives”, said Kovačić, stressing that, because of their role in caring for the sick, Colonel Živanović had personally added the name of his son Darko to the list of prisoners eligible for release. Kovačić has since testified three times before a district court in Osjek. On each occasion, he described Živanović as “a decent individual and a true soldier, and certainly not a torturer”.

Dragan Pjevač, whose mother was killed by the Croatian army in 1993, warned that the Hague Tribunal’s legacy and its archives were very important and precious, but he also pointed to the fact that not a single individual had been convicted (at least not in the final instance) for war crimes perpetrated against Croatia’s ethnic Serb minority. “The Tribunal’s verdict in the first instance against the indicted Croatian generals contained ~1,300 pages. The three judges were unanimous in their ruling. According to our records, over 200,000 people were forcefully expelled from Croatia during the war, and more than 1,800 people were killed (1,212 of them civilians). For these crimes, no one, absolutely no one has ever been held accountable in the final instance. And, for Croatia’s ethnic Serbs, the Tribunal was the last remaining hope for justice, truth, trust and so on. What do we do now, and what comes next? How are we to face the truth after all of that?” asked Pjevač, adding that “he strongly supported the establishment of RECOM for that very reason, and that he was extremely pleased to see such a serious discussion finally taking place, and the issues at hand treated just as seriously.”

The participants were encouraged by the fact that numerous professors and researchers from various European universities had chosen to attend the Forum, and expressed the hope that their presence would motivate local academic communities to take an active part in the debate on Transitional Justice and reconciliation, and thus contribute to the development of a model that would best serve the needs of post-Yugoslav societies.

The attending representatives of state institutions assessed that local war crimes trials were the single most important instrument of justice, and that the region’s states had been mostly successful in meeting the obligation to process all war crimes in their jurisdiction. They gave the impression that the issue of missing persons was gradually becoming a priority in official relations between Serbia and Croatia, and that they expected it to become a priority in relations between Serbia and Kosovo as well.

In spite of these positive developments, the debate did carry a critical undertone. With respect to the region’s states, the criticism was directed mostly at the slow pace of their engagement in the process of facing the past. In the area of Transitional Justice (and its primary mechanism – the courts), the participants underscored the obvious and growing limitations of the courts’ ability to deliver justice to the victims, particularly in light of the ICTY’s recent acquittals of several high profile indictees. On the basis of such criticism, the participants went on to highlight the increasingly apparent need for a regional approach to establishing the irrefutable facts about the war crimes and gross human rights violations of the nineties – an approach that would also need to overcome the inherent limitations of all criminal proceedings and war crimes trials.

[1] A member of the RECOM Initiative’s Regional Team of Public Advocates from B&H

[2] A member of the RECOM Initiative’s Regional Team of Public Advocates from Croatia

[3] Eric Gordy, PhD, University College London (UCL), Great Britain

[4] Professor Zoran Pajić, PhD, Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies of the University of Sarajevo, B&H

[5] Denisa Kostovicova, PhD, London School of Economics and Political Science, Great Britain

[6] Professor-Friar Ivan Šarčević, PhD, Franciscan Theology, Sarajevo, B&H

[7] Husein Effendi Smajić, Mufti of Sarajevo, Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina

[8] Father Vanja Jovanović, Presbyter of Sarajevo, Serbian Orthodox Church, B&H.

[9] Professor Zdravko Grebo, PhD, member of the RECOM Initiative’s Regional Team of Public Advocates from B&H.

[10] Publicist Spomenka Hribar, PhD, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

[11] Tonči Stančić, Croatia’s High Emissary to B&H

[12] Bojan Glavašević, assistant to the Croatian Defense Minister

[13] Selim Selimi, personal representative of the President of Kosovo to RECOM

[14] Adriatik Kelmendi, member of RECOM’s Regional Team of Public Advocates