Balkan Insight: Call for Cross-border War Crimes ‘Truth Commission’

An interview with HLC Executive Director, Natasa Kandic

By: Pedja Obradovic in Belgrade

A broad regional coalition of civil society associations from the countries of the former Yugoslaviais planning to pressure the succession countries into forming a regional commission to establish the facts on war crimes and other severe violations of human rights.

What makes this initiative special is the fact that it is led by a broad regional coalition of civil associations which, through series of debates and consultations, is articulating the increasingly emphasised need of the people to learn the truth about past wars.

In spring next year, the coalition is hoping to organise a petition of a million signatures to be sent to the parliaments and governments of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, demanding the formation of a body which should, according to Natasa Kandic, the director of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre, be an official, independent and extra-judicial body focusing on victims’ experiences.

“The commission, which we call RECOM, must be the voice of victims, and its voice must result in a document naming all the victims of wars in the former Yugoslavia. The list would include all the victims of military conflict, regardless of whether they were members of the regular army or paramilitaries. It is an attempt to deal with the past, through the experiences of victims and to list of all human casualties in the war which started in 1991 in Croatia and ended in 1999 in Kosovo,” Kandic told Balkan Insight.

What convinced you that now is the right time to launch such an initiative?

The debate shows that there is a very strong need to talk about what happened at a local level, especially in the communities where the crimes occurred, but also in the places where people left to go to war leaving state television as their only source of information. Those people knew that what the television reported was propaganda and no one actually believed that what was reported was true. Now, they want to know what really happened and get some kind of official guarantee of the facts. We want to extend the coalition and devise a format for the Commission which is appropriate for our region. We need a dialogue among associations, civil society,and the religious communities, political parties and, eventually,Government representatives. I expect results of this debate by spring 2011.

There are organizations which are not convinced that countries, which were at war, and which, even today, cannot agree on the past and where responsibility lies, can form such a Commission. How realistic is such an initiative?

There are those who claim that the idea is impossible. They say that, for example, Belgrade representatives would never sit down at the same table with Kosovo representatives and discuss war crimes. But we must not forget that if Serbia refuses to cooperate in the field of war crimes, then it cannot seek solidarity for Serbian victims in Kosovo, and it is very important for those victims to be recognised. And the victims of Srebrenica, want to be recognised in Serbia too, because their dignity is not restored by being recognised in Sarajevo or Brussels. They want to be recognised in Belgrade, too. Similarly it is important for Serbs to be recognised in Kosovo, just as Albanians have the need to be recognised in Belgrade. It is this need for recognition that is encouraging us to go through with the initiative.

You will send a petition to the very same governments and parliaments that were uncooperative when the issue of war crimes should have been addressed regionally and whose attempts at forming national commissions on war crimes failed. Why do you think it is going to be any different now?

For the first time since the wars we have a joint, regional initiative of associations of victims and human rights organisations which come from the countries that participated in the war. It was not easy to form that coalition, but we did it. Our request cannot be easily rejected with arguments, because we talk about facts and they are the same for all countries and victims. No one has said so far that they are against it, they were just trying to stop us reaching our objective, but it won’t be easy for a parliament to claim that what we are doing goes against the facts of the issue. Names, crime scenes, graves, documents… You cannot easily deny those things. No one can say it is not important, because the data which is now scattered in various countries, associations, commissions and lists will be collected in one place. This is an opportunity for someone to gather all that and make a record which won’t be subject to dispute.

When it comes to RECOM, you emphasise that its power lies in the fact that it is a regional initiative, which comes from below, from civil society. Is the petition supposed to be a demand from the public for countries to establish the facts jointly?

It turns out that commissions formed individually in countries have produced nothing. Experience shows that the only way to do this is a broad and well-prepared discussion, launched by civil society groups for human rights and victim associations. This coalition must have the strength to show it’s purpose to institutions. We cannot found a commission. We do not have that power, but we can prepare a public discussion, we can formulate a model and the statute for a commission, and, what is most important, we can show that the time for such commissions is ripe. This is what we will show when addressing parliaments and governments with such demands.

What would a functioning RECOM look like in practice?

There are different views. There is a firm belief that the goal must be to establish facts on the crimes committed and that the commission must give a factual record on the past based on facts and reconstructions of events. There is an agreement that RECOM’s remit must include the issue of missing persons, uncovering their fates, and the discovery of mass graves. But RECOM also must cooperate with state commissions, and not replace them. Some also believe that RECOM must deal with the causes of the war, although others believe this would cloud the issue and that the debate could then go too far back into the past. There are also different opinions on whether perpetrators of crimes should be involved in the process… since there are fears about the public revelation of names of perpetrators – this is after all a commission and not a judicial body. The debate is underway, but there is agreement that RECOM can intensify and encourage the existing war crime trials [process], but that it cannot replace courts or be a service for the prosecution.

How would RECOM treat verdicts from courts and The Hague? Is it going to classify crimes [as war crimes]?

RECOM does not have the mandate to classify crimes. We differ from numerous commissions in the world, because they were founded where there were no trials for war crimes and there were no ad hoc tribunals… we should be careful when we define the mandate of RECOM. We think it is important to hear out and use documents relating to a large number of crimes which have not been documented in the courts so far. The power is in the fact that it will be a more complete record than any made by the courts, because they focus on indictments and defendants.