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Justice and reconciliation long overdue in the Balkans

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 09/07/2013
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Justice and reconciliation long overdue in the Balkans

More than 20 years after the first war in connection with the dissolution of Yugoslavia the legacy of the violence still lingers across the region. 12 200 persons are still missing, 423 000 refugees and displaced persons still cannot return to their homes, about 20 000 persons remain stateless or at risk of statelessness and at least 20 000 women subjected to wartime sexual violence still need stronger support.

All this, combined with impunity for wartime crimes, hampers reconciliation and endangers the full enjoyment of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Measures to eliminate impunity

A fundamental requirement for reconciliation is to bring to justice those who committed war-related crimes, not least war-crimes of sexual violence. Justice is needed not only to ensure the accountability of those who have committed the violations; it is also necessary for providing reparation to victims who suffer additionally from the lack of support and acknowledgement of their suffering.

The work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, has made the prosecution and trial of senior leaders involved in war-related crimes possible. But the countries of the region have to step up their efforts to continue this work at national level.

National judicial systems, including witness protection systems, should be strengthened to enable them to work more effectively.

Another fundamental point is that amnesty, which leads to impunity for serious human rights violations, is not acceptable, as stressed by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in 2011 and the European Court of Human Rights in the 2012 judgment Marguš v. Croatia.

Many still missing, others displaced

There are, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, still 12 200 persons missing after the wars in the former Yugoslavia. States in the region have a moral and legal obligation to enhance their efforts to resolve these cases, in order to provide relief to missing persons’ families and friends.

To achieve this, effective cooperation between countries in the region is necessary. Recently such cooperation has led to important results: in the city of Zadar, Croatia, bodies of Serb civilians were exhumed from a mass grave and in Sotin, Croatia, civilian victims from the Serbian occupation have been exhumed.

According to the UNHCR there are still about 423 000 refugees and internally displaced persons in the region. Solutions must be found for them, especially for those living in collective centres. Some important steps forward have been taken in the context of the Sarajevo Process, which relates to finding durable solutions for refugees. New housing units are being built with the help of the Council of Europe Development Bank.

Solutions must also be found for the 20 000 persons, inside and outside the region, who are stateless or at risk of statelessness, especially Roma.

Access to the truth

The truth is essential to reconciliation. The NGO-driven RECOM initiative that aims to determine and disclose the facts about war crimes has enhanced the understanding by the region’s peoples of the importance of the reconciliation process. During the final years of the ICTY’s mandate much effort will go to the tribunal´s outreach programme, which is aimed at raising transitional justice awareness among citizens in the region, not least young people. Some have expressed their concern that this process is belated and that a sense of injustice, as a result of some parts of the work of the ICTY, is embedded in the minds of peoples in the region. It is crucial that these concerns are openly addressed and discussed through the tribunal’s outreach programme.

The educational systems in the region’s countries play a pivotal role in this context. However, across the Balkans there are divisions in education along ethnic lines, which represent a serious obstacle to reconciliation. The Council of Europe regional project Inclusive education – Human rights, vulnerable groups and minorities, presents an avenue to address this problem.

Regional dialogue and co-operation

Recently some very important steps have been made towards effective inter-state dialogue and reconciliation. Last April Serbian President Nikolić presented an unequivocal apology for war crimes committed by Serb forces in Srebrenica, saying: “I am on my knees and begging for a pardon in the name of my people for the crime committed in Srebrenica.”

Also last January Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a protocol with Serbia on co-operation in the prosecution of war-crimes and in April Kosovo and Serbia signed a political agreement on North Kosovo.

A common responsibility

One of the key challenges for societies emerging from conflicts is to deal with the past. Some important steps forward have been taken, but much remains to be done. Reconciliation in the Balkans must come through justice, that is, the effective investigation and prosecution of war-related crimes and the provision of adequate reparation to all war victims. This cannot be delayed further – it is up to national governments to increase their efforts.

Nils Muižnieks

Read the Comment in Bosnian
Read the Comment in Croatian
Read the Comment in Serbian

Visit the Commissioner’s thematic website on post-war justice and reconciliation in the region of former Yugoslavia