Reconciliation and justice for victims as a universal value


Aleksandar Bošković

In all conflicts of the modern era, when the armed conflict ends, there comes a realization that representatives of the conflicting parties must live, if not with each other, then at least alongside each other. Justice for the victims emerges as one of the important conditions for a sustainable peace between parties previously in conflict. In this short review, I will present three examples of this situation from different parts of the world. I will deliberately not be referring to examples of the Balkan conflicts, although some situations mentioned here are just as applicable to the Balkans and Southern European context, especially with regard to reconciliation.

One of the main things most insisted upon is that victims of the warring parties be recognized. This is not easy to implement in situations where one party has “won” in the military sense – as is the case, for example, in the conflict between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamils ​​in Sri Lanka – or in cases where the representatives of the government and military were directly involved in the massacres of civilians, and then became unavoidable factors in the peace process. The latter case is typical of the countries of Central America, such as Guatemala. In other cases, when the conflict was primarily political, as in South Africa, a symbolic reconciliation of  the conflicting parties took place, embodied in the abolition of discriminatory laws and the gradual division of power in the so-called transitional period between 1990 and 1994.

These three examples are nevertheless different in several important details, additional to the aspect of human suffering. In the case of Sri Lanka, the definitive victory of one side in the war makes reconciliation look primarily like a gesture of winner’s goodwill.The fact that the military wingof the defeated side (the LTTA, “Tamil Tigers”) was declared a terrorist organization by 32 countries (including the U.S., Canada and EU countries), plays a significant role here. The ruling ideology of Sinhalese Buddhism also seems to pose a problem – indeed, some authors have demonstrated the extent to which this ideology, developed over several hundred years, constituted a key component in the preparations for and waging of the war.

In the case of Guatemala, the first trial of a former high government official for crimes against humanity did not begin until 2013, although the civil war, which began in 1960, officially ended in 1996. The problem in Guatemala is precisely the involvement of government and military officials in the conflict and their continued presence in public life. It is indicative that one of the most notorious generals, Rios Montt, was twice  elected President of the National Assembly (in1995, and again in 2000). Another paradox is the fact that the business elite of the country (the social layer ridiculed in the Balkans as “the tycoons”) does not support this situation – and so for more than two decades there has been in Guatemala an agreement on key aspects of overcoming the consequences of the civil war between its richest and poorest residents (who were most often the victims of the pogroms, abductions and forced evictions).

South Africa did not, on the whole, have open military clashes, even though the organizations that opposed Apartheid had their military wings. In fact, human losses (killed, wounded, missing persons) were, both in absolute and in relative terms, far smaller than in Sri Lanka or Guatemala – although whole sections of the population (tens of millions of mostly black and other non-white or “coloured” members of the population) were economically and socially destroyed. However, with South Africa’s transition to democracy, which began in late 1989, and was formalized in early February in 1990, and with the subsequent establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), things began to change. The Commission was led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and a number of prominent public figures around the world were involved in it. The TRC was seen as an example of how one state and society can deal with the tragic legacy of the past. It is less known, however, that immediately upon its establishment, the Commission faced serious limitations: it was “advised” not to target the representatives of big capital (without which the whole political system, established in 1949, would have been unsustainable), or the most senior officers (most of them remained with the government even after the changes at the top in 1994). This created a defeatist feeling in the vast majority of so-called “ordinary people.” Therefore, paradoxically, an experiment that has been praised and celebrated throughout the world as a model that should be used wherever possible, has never been widely accepted in South Africa itself. Also, unlike Guatemala, where the business community has long recognized that the conflict is damaging the entire country, in South Africa (where, admittedly, the presence of international corporate capital was far greater) these same circles signed some sort of an agreement with the representatives of the new government and virtually included them in the division of profits from the natural resources in which this country abounds.

What possible lessons might these examples represent for RECOM? First of all, any attempt at reconciliation after the conflict will be successful only if adequate conditions have been created for a dialogue. It is unrealistic to expect that a meaningful dialogue that leads to reconciliation could take place in a situation where there are winners and losers. It will be difficult for the “winners” to see what their interest could be in giving up something they have already achieved on the battlefield. Secondly, apart from the relevant political factors, the success of the dialogue hinges on the widest social support – and it must include those who would lead the economic reconstruction of the destroyed societies (the so-called “business community”). Finally, and most importantly, justice for the victims is feasible only if during the process of reconciliation there is talk about all the perpetrators – no side should be privileged, regardless of the current political, military or economic powers. Only then will these processes be accepted by the majority of the population (the so-called “public”), which is the essential condition for their long-term success.


Aleksandar Bošković, professor of Anthropology, University of Belgrade