Transitions Online: Acts of War – Judge Not …

A new initiative aims to seek the truth about the Yugoslav wars, not necessarily reconcile old enemies.

by Tihomir Loza

In legal terms, international and local efforts over the past 15 years to prosecute those responsible for war crimes committed in the conflicts accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia have been a success overall, if requiring some elaborate qualification.

Dozens of high-ranking officials have faced largely credible trials, with just two really important suspects still evading justice. Yet when it comes to the impact of war crimes trials on political and social lives in the Western Balkan societies even generous watchers see only mixed results.

It is important to understand that most of the victims of war crimes don’t feel they have received justice. Many live lives of poverty or social exclusion. They often complain about what they see as lenient sentencing and good living conditions for the convicts, many of whom are serving their sentences in relatively comfortable prisons in Western countries. When convicted war criminals are released early, victims feel betrayed.


Prosecutors at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague understandably focused more on the big beasts of the Balkan wars. Inevitably, these trials attracted much more attention than those of actual perpetrators. Meanwhile, most of the hundreds or possibly thousands of those who actually carried out atrocities are yet to face justice. In addition to reinforcing the notion that the trials are really about apportioning political blame, this has made it difficult for many victims to relate to the trials as relevant to their personal tragedies.

Few would argue that trials at The Hague and in national courts contributed much to reconciliation and dealing with the past in general. Many closed cases continue to generate fresh interethnic acrimony. To take a relatively minor example, just last week, in what looked like a moment of political madness, Croatia’s outgoing president, Stjepan Mesic, reduced two sentences for crimes committed in the early 1990s, one given to a Serb guard at a detention center where Croatian soldiers were tortured, one to a Croat colonel infamous for taking part in some of the most gruesome crimes against Croatia’s Serbian community. The list of  those dismayed, or even frightened, by Mesic’s parting shot includes Croatian veterans, former POWs in particular, members of Croatia’s Serbian minority, and the government of Serbia.

One must not here mistake reintegration with reconciliation. Despite new international and internal borders dividing them, the ethnic groups of the former Yugoslavia have re-established many pre-war links, in culture and trade in particular, often to levels matching those from before the war. They have achieved this despite failing to reconcile with one another. In fact, they fail to even try to reconcile their conflicting takes on the past, which, of course, does not prove that reconciliation is unnecessary, but does perhaps reveal an intrinsic durability of links among them.


Consider that the post-Yugoslav states have accepted the obligation to cooperate with the Hague tribunal and support local war crimes courts. But even the most liberal among them have been careful to support war crimes prosecutions, and sell that support to their respective electorates, almost exclusively under the premise that cooperation with The Hague is good for their countries’ integration into the international community, the EU and NATO in particular. At the same time, most of them provided financial and legal assistance to suspects and their families, not to speak of the heroes’ welcome convicts often receive upon their release.

Released early from a Swedish prison in October, convicted war criminal Biljana Plavsic, a former president of Republika Srpska, flew home in an aircraft sent by the entity government. A few days later, ordinary Serbs warmly greeted her in Banja Luka to the utter dismay of the Bosniak parts of the country. Nor are the war criminals forgotten while behind bars. Children in some Bosnian Croat schools write Christmas letters to Croat convicts.

The failure of war crimes trials to contribute more to reconciliation of the region’s conflicting views of the past cannot be explained away by simply pointing to the failure of the Hague tribunal and local courts to grasp the importance of strong outreach. Sure enough, in The Hague and the region alike, justice has often been done without being seen as having been done. Yet an often unappreciated structural obstacle to a greater readiness of former Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups to face the past in a constructive way is perhaps a more important consideration in this regard.

The crimes highlighted here were not committed out of sheer hatred, though hatred was never in short supply, but in the name of political aims supported by millions. These were not just any political aims, but aspirations addressing fundamental issues concerning the existence of these ethnic groups, such as national sovereignty, borders, identity, constitutional position, or long-term security.


These aspirations themselves were not necessarily illegitimate. There was nothing illegitimate or unlawful in principle for the Bosnian Serbs to want a separate territory inside Bosnia or for the Croats of Croatia to want an independent Croatia or for Serbia to want to keep Kosovo within its border or for Kosovo Albanians to want independence. Some of the actions committed in the name and within the context of these aspirations were unlawful, and while it is, of course, possible to argue that at least some of these aspirations were illegal in themselves as their fulfillment implied the use of force, that is a complicated argument and one whose time has long passed. Not least because those political aspirations have largely survived the conflicts. They were fully or partly realized, and as such are considered unquestioned historical achievements now set in constitutions, or where they were not fulfilled, they survived on a conceptual as well as legal level, such as in the case of Serbia vis a vis Kosovo. In other words, the post-Yugoslav societies are founded – and internationally accepted as such – on aspirations, fulfilled or not, in whose name members of these societies committed terrible crimes. When it comes to illuminating, by whatever means, the crimes committed in
the name of these aspirations, what we are asking these societies to do is in effect to rise above themselves and divorce their political aspirations from the crimes committed in the name of those aspirations. This is intellectually and emotionally a very demanding proposition, not just for the masses, but often for liberal minorities, too.

Fine, you can have your Republika Srpska, but, please, show us the mass graves that went into its making and some empathy for the families of the victims. How about rebuilding some of the hundreds of mosques destroyed in the name of Republika Srpska? Congratulations on achieving an independent Croatia! Well done! Would you mind handing over the generals who made it possible and please repair the houses they torched while chasing out those Serbs, whom we are sure you’d be thrilled to see
come back. This was never going to work smoothly, if at all.

For while criminal acts were certainly not the only building blocks used to construct the current political map of the region, a rarely spoken truth is that they were indeed building blocks. That’s why attempts to highlight individual responsibility for war crimes, in court trials of former top officials in particular, are more often than not perceived by the community from which the accused come as assaults on the very foundations of that community. That’s why you see otherwise perfectly decent, law-abiding citizens who would never dream of condoning “ordinary” crimes being unmoved by revelations of war crimes. In fact, people often seem able to view war crimes in abstract terms, as if they were committed in a reality different from the one in which they live their everyday lives. In other words, while they may have served other worthy purposes, war crimes trials have not so far given satisfaction to the victims or contributed to reconciliation among the region’s ethnic groups.


More and more civil society organizations in the former Yugoslav states consider this situation unhealthy and not conducive to peace and stability. They have now organized themselves into a regional coalition to advocate the establishment of a commission for “truth-seeking and truth-telling” about war crimes in the 1990s. The coalition for REKOM, which includes associations of victims, human rights activists, former detention camp inmates, veterans, youth, women, historians, journalists, and artists, aims to persuade the governments of Yugoslavia’s successor states to embrace the initiative and establish the commission on an intergovernmental basis.

Rather than being an alternative to judicial efforts, the REKOM initiative “addresses the limitations of a perpetrator-oriented approach to the truth about a conflict-ridden past,” according to a recent memo. Victims and their families are the primary focus. Through registering all the victims and giving survivors and witnesses a platform to build “the truth about the past based on the facts of war crimes and other serious violations of human rights,” the coalition hopes that its findings will represent “a necessary protection against any future abuse of past crimes for political purposes that may plunge the region into a new cycle of conflict.”

Founded in 2008, the coalition has already held wide-ranging consultations across the region, often bringing together people who don’t normally communicate with one another, and expects to gather 1 million signatures in support of the initiative by the spring. How likely is it that the governments in the region will sign up to this proposal in the near future? Perhaps not very, but not totally improbable either. The architecture of basic political sentiments in the region would suggest that the prerequisite for this to happen is simultaneous support for the initiative from the governments in the two most important capitals, Belgrade and Zagreb. It is virtually inconceivable that Podgorica, Sarajevo, and Pristina would fail to follow such a move. And their support for the initiative without either Belgrade or Zagreb on board would not amount to very much.

While it is hard to picture any government in the region embracing the initiative as a priority and of its own will, with a bit of luck and some fine pressure Belgrade and Zagreb just may play ball in the end. Both countries have been quite lucky in choosing their leaders lately. Last summer, Croatia’s now disgraced former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader thought he was appointing a mere proxy as his successor only to see Jadranka Kosor quickly develop into a most formidable player capable of transforming not only the fortunes of the government and the ruling party but also the country’s entire outlook. In giving a landslide victory this past weekend to Ivo Josipovic, Croatia gained a moderate, calm, and exceptionally brainy president. Meanwhile, Serbian President Boris Tadic has been creating conditions for the gradual taking hold of a Serbia more decent than the one that has usually made headlines in the recent past. Even though this is not always easily discernable in the daily news, there is little doubt that the entire mainstream political sentiment is slowly but surely moving toward moderation. Tadic and Josipovic have both said they view the development of the Serb-Croat relationship as their priority.

While the EU’s “soft power” has not been as powerful in transforming the region as was hoped in the middle of the 2000s, much of the positive change is indeed taking place in the context of local bids for EU membership. Individual European Commission officials have been very supportive of the REKOM initiative. Apart from the commission, the coalition should work to raise the initiative’s profile in the European Parliament, whose motions regularly attract attention in the region. But the coalition accepts that it is unrealistic to expect the EU to explicitly build local support for the initiative into its conditionality policy.

Yet support from Brussels, even if short of conditionality, could be key to REKOM’s success.