[BSF] Session: How to achieve reconciliation in the Balkans?

Session 10 participants; Photo: Flickr/Belgrade Security Forum

BELGRADE – More than two decades after the end of the war in the former Yugoslavia and in spite of millions of dollars spent on justice reform and reconciliation initiatives, reconciliation between and within societies and communities remains a work-in-progress. Noticing that reconciliation is a difficult and often misunderstood concept, moderator of the session “Prospects for justice and reconciliation in the Balkans” Ivan Zverzhanovski, Regional Partnerships Advisor, UNDP set the goal to try to define reconciliation and point out the problems with this process so we can move on to understand it and begin to use its full potential.

The tenth session of the Belgrade Security Forum was organised in partnership with the War Studies Department of the Kings College in London

James Gow, Professor and Co-Director of the War Crimes Research Group, King’s College, London started off by sharing his story of the engagement in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In his opinion the main problem at the time was the lack of evidence that could lead to conviction.

The main achievement of the Tribunal, in Professor Gow’s opinion, was that it survived for almost 25 years, delivering the verdicts for some of the biggest crimes of the Yugoslav wars. However, it has been established that this approach to reconcilation and transitional justice has not been the most successful one and that some other forms are clearly needed.

One of the alternative approaches that has gained much attention in recent months is the Initiative for RECOM, the Regional Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia. The petition to establish such a Commission has been signed by more than 500,000 people across the region.

“I think that what happened at the London Summit raises a very important question – can the initiatives that emerged from the bottom-up succeed if they are not supported from outside”, stated Dr Denisa Kostovicova, Associate Professor of Global Politics at the European Institute and the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science and one of the speakers at the session for European Western Balkans.

“In other words, the question is whether we should be rethinking some sort of more explicit support on the part of the EU for the RECOM process, because it is clear that even when something is achieved at the level of civil society, it obviously doesn’t have a buy-in on a state level, which is necessary”, she added.

Dr Denisa Kostovicova; Photo: Flickr/ Belgrade Security Forum

Asked whether there is an alternative way for the region to achieve substantial progress on the issue of reconciliation if RECOM process fails, Professor Kostovicova stressed that transitional justice initiatives can never be reduced to one type and always have to be taking place on several fronts, but, in the sense of recording the facts, RECOM is quite unique, and thus without real alternative.

“It is very important to stress that there are civil society organisations that have recorded the facts of war crimes. However, and this is why RECOM insists for this to be a interstate process, it is only the state involvment that can give legitimacy to this facts”, she reminded.

“As long as the initiative stays on the civil society level, however important these organisations are, effect is not going to be as strong and important as when it is supported by the states”, Kosotovicova concluded.

Another participant, Rachel Kerr, Reader in International Relations and Contemporary War, King’s College, attempted to define reconciliation and underlined the challenges we face when we tackle that problem. She defined reconciliation as an engine of social interactions and social relations. It has great political dimension and complex political context.

Reconciliation often plays at different levels and there are many different actors involved in process. Kerr wondered why is there disconnect between the amount of effort put in reconciliation and the actual results of the reconciliation process.

Jelena Petrović, Research Associate at King’s College, London went right into the biggest problem with reconciliation: the terminology. There are huge differences between the ways this term is translated, which leads to it being often misused. She believes reconciliation is usually observed as a process that has to be achieved in a certain period of time otherwise it loses focus. Petrović disagrees with that observation and claims reconciliation is a multigenerational change that can be reversed.

She pointed at other problems as well, such as the lack of a strategic vision – being able to understand what reconciliation is affects how we plan to achieve it, lack of evaluation and realistic view of what has been done and what is left to be done.

“Evaluation of the success should not happen be happening post factum, but in parallel”, said Petrović, referring to the projects aimed at furthering the process of reconciliation.

Finally, the question of how do we measure justice came up. Iva Vukušić, PhD Candidate from University of Utrecht, thinks that justice is a deeply personal problem that people can easily disagree upon. For Vukušić, justice is making things right. Sometimes there is no satisfaction and justice because nothing can be done to make some unforgivable things right, so she differentiates justice from criminal accountability. When it comes to reconciliation, she states that it’s not expected of courts to reconcile anyone but to prosecute and convict people.