European institutions failed to protect people in the former Yugoslavia from ethnic cleansing and other war atrocities in the 1990s. The return to normalcy has been slow and major obstacles still remain. However, there are now grounds for some hope – which gives Europe a second chance to offer constructive support.
Key political leaders in the area have shown moral leadership and initiated a process towards reconciliation and peace. The next step will be a meeting in Belgrade next week between ministers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia to discuss durable solutions for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Refugees and other displaced persons
Though the majority of those originally uprooted have been able to return or have been offered reasonable alternatives, there are still – according to the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) - about 438 000 refugees and other displaced persons whose legitimate claims have not yet been met, and for whom durable solutions have not been found.
When travelling in these countries I have met families who are still waiting to return home in safety and dignity, or who have decided that they cannot go home but instead hope for another permanent solution.
Recently in Bosnia, I met people in collective centres – including elderly and disabled people – who are still, after all these years, living in substandard housing conditions. The situation for many Roma in the region is extremely precarious because at the same time they are afraid of being pushed back to Kosovo* where they fear their safety would be endangered.
The forthcoming meeting in Belgrade has been under preparation for the past year and a half. The four governments have worked together to design a joint programme, one aim of which is to provide a housing solution for those most vulnerable and in greatest need. They have also agreed to resolve the issue of civil status documentation for refugees and IDPs – an acute problem for some, and not least for many displaced Roma.
These efforts will require extra funding. It is estimated that some 500 million Euros will be needed over a five year period. European institutions should realise the importance of this opportunity to repair the war damages and invest in peace.
The situation of those who were displaced from Kosovo must also be addressed - in the interests of the individuals themselves and with respect for the principle that return should be voluntary.
Another terrible heritage of the conflict was the “disappearance” of almost 40 000 persons. In response Croatia and Serbia established commissions on missing persons in the 1990s. A couple of years ago similar structures were also set up in Sarajevo and Pristina. The International Commission on Missing Persons has played an important role in this development which has made it possible to find bodies and identify them with the help of DNA testing.
About 26 000 cases have been solved in the sense that the bodies have been found and identified – the families have been able to bury their loved ones in dignity. But others are still suffering from the trauma of not knowing. An estimated 14 000 are still missing.
I have met families who have been waiting for years to discover what happened to someone close to them who one day was reported to have “disappeared.” The trauma of not knowing is ever present in their daily lives.
More needs to be done to respond to this tragedy. The search for gravesite locations should be intensified. State archives should be carefully screened for information on the fate of those missing. States should exchange information unconditionally on this matter.
The identification of already exhumed bodies should be speeded up and increased resources should be provided to the national commissions and their forensic structures.
It may not be possible to clarify all cases but it is of the utmost importance that this remains the goal. The families who are still waiting must feel comfortable that every effort is being made to meet their expectations.
Prosecution of war crimes
The arrests and transfer of Ratko Mladić and Goran Hadžić have confirmed improved co-operation with the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). As this tribunal is approaching its final stages, the importance of the national war crime proceedings should be further emphasised. There are a number of war criminals who have not yet been brought to justice - among them killers and rapists.
There have been examples of misuse of amnesty laws to avoid accountability for alleged acts of torture and other serious crimes.
So far these national proceedings have been too slow all over the region. They have not had full political support and there have been outright obstructions by some political parties. This atmosphere has also created difficulties for the protection of witnesses.
The safety of witnesses is a major concern in the investigations now underway into the serious allegations against some Kosovars about organ transplants, illegal detentions and killings from 1998 onwards.
It is extremely important that any pattern of impunity be countered. The positions taken recently by the presidents of Serbia and Croatia, Boris Tadić and Ivo Josipović, in stressing the need to recognise past crimes have paved the way for further progress in the national procedures.
Recognising the truth
The trials aim not only to pass sentence on the guilty; they will also facilitate the determination of compensation for victims and their families. Furthermore, they are important for seeking the truth about the overall picture of what actually happened during the war years.
More needs to be done to counter the ignorance and denial of the gross human rights violations which are still prevalent in public and political discourse. An honest search for the truth is still lacking. In this, the mass media have a great responsibility.
History teaching is crucial for the continued reconciliation process. It is of vital importance that history be taught without resorting to one single interpretation of events.
A coalition of non-governmental organisations has been campaigning for a region-wide, independent truth commission which would investigate all alleged war crimes and human rights violations committed during the wars in the 1990s. The commission would issue a report with the established facts. It would also present recommendations on reparations and, not least, steps to be taken to prevent future conflict. The report would also serve as a basis for objective history lessons in schools.
This proposal is a challenge to politicians all over the region. The undertaking and completion of such a truth-seeking process would be a sign that the Balkan nightmare is over. The rest of Europe should stand ready to support these efforts for genuine justice and durable peace.
* References to Kosovo in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.