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Dealing with the Past in the Former Yugoslavia

October 9, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

What We Know

The denial of responsibility for crimes committed in wartime, or the justification for such atrocities by claiming that worse were suffered by one's own people, is not uncommon during transition processes. This fact does not make such denial and obfuscation of facts any less egregious. The governments of the states which emerged from the former Yugoslavia are impeding their nations' transition to democracy through their determined refusal to confront the past and to own up to their participation in crimes committed against their people.

The government that emerged following the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic was able to do so only by brokering deals with former members of Milosevic's regime. These "allies" were granted immunity from prosecution and the means to make money illegally in exchange for helping hand over Milosevic and some others to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). These "allies" eventually returned to power, wielding great control over the police and military, and the government largely fell under their influence as well.

The media has backed the crackdown on those supportive or sympathetic to non-Serb victims, and little coverage has been given to the trials. Although some indictees pleaded guilty at The Hague and provided evidence of the Serbian police and military's involvement in the massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims, this received virtually no media coverage. From the government, the police, and the media there is an appalling complicity with the former regime and lack of effort to establish the truth about what was done in Bosnia and to acknowledge political responsibility for atrocities committed there.

What We Don't Know

As with any major and particularly disturbing event, it is impossible to predict how history will remember this period. There is concern that as with Germany and Japan in World War II, people who were very young when the Bosnian war began will not be interested in the crimes committed and will not be invested in their remembrance. There is also a concern that people will claim victimization as a group, instead of claiming responsibility for what occurred. Serbia contains many victims, and overcoming this sense of victimization will be the greatest obstacle to having Serbia face up to its past.

The ICTY is scheduled to conclude its work by 2008. Whatever work it may accomplish by then, the ICTY will not be able to prevent future conflict. Moreover, Serbian and other governments are waiting for the close of the tribunal, thinking it will be the end of attention on the past. The legacy of this court with respect to justice and remembrance remains to be seen.

What Are the Next Steps

As part of the process of confronting the past, the political and judicial climate must improve. Without political will and forceful decisions, prosecutors will not issue contentious indictments. Only small trials will be held with the permission of the government. Witnesses need to believe that police and judicial institutions have changed before they feel comfortable going to the police. People are afraid to testify, many fearing for their lives.

In the absence of political efforts to deal with the past, civil society must step in to fill the void. It is essential to break the silence about the past and preserve remembrance. Organizations independent of political influence are best situated to do this. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) is committed to the preservation of documentation and making documents accessible for prosecution of people involved in past injustices. The HLC has also begun establishing a network of such centers throughout the region. The hope is that the protection and preservation of such documentation will lead to trials and indictments. A public service approach is also essential – speaking in public, pushing for cases to be brought to trial, and advocating prosecution.

In addition, the media and politicians must speak up to explain that all sides were involved in crimes. Without addressing the past, it is difficult to move on to the future. A climate must be created that shows clearly that the war has ended. The former Yugoslavia was the only country ever to have its president accused of genocide and other crimes against humanity. The detainment of Milosevic and hearings at The Hague were never explained in terms of individual responsibility, but were instead attributed to international pressure and obligation.

Government accountability is critical. Domestic war crimes trials must be supported and monitored. In Serbia and Croatia, domestic trials are typically focused on individuals, locating blame with individuals and directing attention away from the state's role. Frequently a few individuals are served up for prosecution in order to protect the Yugoslav army and the state at large. Until the state honestly addresses and comes to terms with its past, it will be extremely difficult for its people to move forward to a peaceful, productive future.

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