Impunity Watch

6 April 2011
Time for Truth in Former Yugoslavia:
Civil society has proposed an excellent model for dealing comprehensively with the atrocities of the 1990s’ wars – now it’s time for the region’s politicians to join efforts to make it a reality. Years in the making, a detailed proposal for a truth commission on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s was last week made public by a broad regional coalition of activists. This initiative offers a unique opportunity to address and understand the vast number of crimes that have yet to be fully investigated, and to do so in a way that defies accusations of ethnic bias. The key to its success, however, is held by the region’s leaders: if the commission, known as RECOM, is to achieve its goals, it must receive official endorsement and support from all of the former Yugoslavia’s successor states.

Significant efforts have been made over the past fifteen years to achieve accountability for the serious and widespread atrocities that accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. These have, however, been largely restricted to the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity in local and international tribunals. While the contribution of the ICTY in The Hague, and the local war crimes courts it helped set up, should not be  underestimated, they could never alone expose the full truth about abuses, hold perpetrators to account and restore dignity to victims and their families. And regardless of the quality of court proceedings, they have too easily been painted as biased by those opposed to a thorough examination of crimes committed by their group.

In many post-conflict states, truth-seeking initiatives have provided a mechanism for dealing much more broadly with past crimes, and building a common historical understanding of what occurred. So far, however, no serious attempts have been made to undertake such an exercise in any part of the former Yugoslavia. In their absence, different ‘truths’ have emerged in each of the successor state, in which victimhood of the dominant ethnic group is emphasised, and the crimes committed by its members denied, justified or viewed as aberrations.

Consequently, the rights of all victims to truth, justice and reparation are being seriously undermined, and little is being done to guarantee non-recurrence of abuses. In 2006, three leading human rights organisations from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia sought to address this problem by exploring the possibility of creating a truth-seeking body that would be capable of creating a solid, impartial and persuasive account of the experiences of all victims from all parts of the region.

Having formed the Coalition for RECOM (CORECOM), they held dozens of local consultations with a wide range of stakeholders and studied the experiences of other countries, with a view to creating a proposal for a model that
incorporated international best practice, and reflected local needs and conditions.

The draft statute it adopted on 26 March represents the culmination of this process, and the proposal of a coalition that has grown to a membership of 1,163 civil society organisations and
more than 2,000 individuals. It envisions the creation of an official, independent body, founded
on the basis of an international treaty among all the former Yugoslav states, to proactively investigate all alleged war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the wars of the 1990s. At the end of its three-year mandate, it would issue a report, containing the facts established, and issuing recommendations in terms of reparations, non-recurrence and further  steps to be taken. It would also leave an archive, open to the public.

Impunity Watch has followed the development of the RECOM since it began working in Serbia in 2007. Based on our in-depth research into the obstacles to combating impunity for conflictera crimes, and our participation in CORECOM consultations, we believe that this initiative offers an opportunity for overcoming the painful past that must not be passed up.

Unlike past attempts to establish national truth commissions in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, RECOM represents a grassroots response to a regional demand for an accurate, comprehensive and victim-centred account of the recent past.

The regional aspect is crucial, since the conflicts left many victims, perpetrators and witnesses of crimes on different sides of national borders. Attempts to establish national truth commission would restrict the scope of the exercise and inevitably produce competing  accounts, none of which would be comprehensive or balanced. Only a regional commission is capable of providing each country of the region with the chance to hear the accounts of all

Also key has been the ‘bottom-up’ approach to creating the proposal for this body. The careful consultations have ensured it reflects the needs and concerns of a wide array of stakeholders: human rights groups, victim associations, veterans, the media and religious communities, to name just a few. This has helped to create a sense of ownership by diverse groups throughout the region, which should give the eventual body’s findings all the more weight.

The transformation of this civil society initiative into an official one is the third essential part of the project. Unequivocal support from the region’s states will not only give the body credence among the region’s publics, but also oblige the state-signatories to respect its findings and recommendations. This will ensure, for example, that witnesses can be subpoenad and documents demanded, that all hearings and ceremonies related to the commission are broadcast on state TV and radio, and that complementary measures are taken to enforce
victims’ rights.

CORECOM has already received some support from institutions and senior officials in the region: the presidents of Croatia and Serbia have endorsed its activities, and the Montenegrin parliament has declared that the country “is open to the idea of RECOM.” With a formal proposal for the commission now issued, it is time for the region’s political representatives have to take much firmer steps to demonstrate their support, starting with constructive
consideration of the draft statute by the national parliaments.

Dealing with the past is not only an international obligation incumbent on states, but also a necessary part of the European integration to which all the region’s states aspire. European institutions have moreover expressed their support for the RECOM. Facing competing demands, and with many weaknesses still inherent in their workings, we are nevertheless concerned that the region’s legislators will not prioritise consideration of the draft statute.

Sustained efforts must therefore be made to urge the region’s parliaments to take prompt action. CORECOM has launched a drive to gather a petition of one million signatures in support of the truth commission, but broader support is needed. At this key moment, therefore, all local and international stakeholders must do what they can to maintain and build upon the momentum created by the CORECOM.

Another opportunity to give a voice to the victims and their families, help remove the risk that the crimes they suffered could recur, and create a foundation for a more peaceful andprosperous region may not come around again.