Bosnia’s Transitional Justice Strategy: Casualty of Post-War Divisions

Bosnia’s Transitional Justice Strategy: Casualty of Post-War Divisions

A plan to adopt a national strategy to address the legacy of the bitterly divisive Bosnian war was effectively abandoned after it became a casualty of disputes that it was supposed to help to overcome.

They prepared a draft strategy, but the authorities have never adopted it, and the document is now almost forgotten. Former members of the expert group believe this was because of a lack of political will.

One of the group’s members, Eli Tauber, said he got the impression that the whole initiative was just for show and that the authorities were never serious about adopting the strategy.

“All of us who participated in that team thought we were doing the best for our own country. However, someone thought we should just show that we were sort of doing something, but not actually do it,” Tauber said.

‘Healing processes are absent’

At the same time as the 15-member expert group was appointed by the Council of Ministers in early 2010, the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees and the Ministry of Justice held a series of consultations with representatives of war victims and civil society.

At that point, 15 years had passed since the end of the war, but it was the first time that opinions on transitional justice were exchanged directly between the various different groups from different ethnic backgrounds.

Zlatko Prkic of the Croatian Association of Detainees in Vares, who took part in consultations about the preparation of the draft strategy, recalls that period as being a unique opportunity for surviving victims of torture and human rights violations to specify key problems and explain how they could be helped.

“After that, there were no more calls or meetings. Attempts were made to sweep the problem under the carpet, to involve fewer and fewer detainees and war victims in finding a solution,” Prkic said.

Legal expert Goran Simic, another former member of the expert group, said that after the draft strategy was prepared, the Council of Ministers put it in a drawer and pretended it did not exist.

“Members of the Council of Ministers and parliamentarians who don’t want the exact number of victims and their names to be determined, or the location of detention camps and who set them up to be discovered, or trials to be held for all war crimes, cannot accept the strategy,” Simic said.

The strategy’s vision, as outlined in the draft document, was to set up an open, productive dialogue about the past in all sectors of Bosnian society, with the aim of preventing the manipulation of facts about the war, delivering satisfaction for victims and establishing efficient, professional, representative and credible public institutions.

The draft also suggested that in order to secure war victims’ right to the truth, an institutional extra-judicial mechanism could be set up to determine the facts, although the draft did not specify what kind of body this would be and how it would achieve its aims..

Key issues considered in the draft strategy included regulating reparations for war victims and setting uniform rules for building memorials, with the aim of resolving “numerous controversies and dissatisfaction” about monuments commemorating those who died in the war. Victims’ associations have often complained that they are not allowed to install memorials in municipalities where another ethnic group is in the majority and insists on only commemorating its own victims.

Edin Ramulic, a representative of the Izvor Association, who was a member of the expert group, said the strategy would have offered a new approach to the troubled issue of memorialisation.

“Memorialisation itself can contribute to facing the past and leading a high-quality dialogue about the past, instead of memorials being used to mark territories,” Ramulic said.

The last initiative in the draft strategy envisaged initiating a system of background checks on people working for the judiciary and security institutions, as well as those working in the prison service and public administration, in order to reduce the number of employees in the public services who were involved in wrongdoing during the war.

Branko Todorovic, director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that if the strategy had been adopted back in 2010, it would have been relatively late, coming 15 years after the war, but it would have created a more stable basis for establishing the rule of law in the country. As it was not adopted, violations and abuses have continued unchecked.

“Issues that should have been solved through transitional justice have remained unsolved – namely inter-ethnic hate, the [political] manipulation of victims, war criminals going untried, and the absence of compensation and other reparations for victims, refugees and displaced people,” Todorovic said.

“So all the processes necessary for healing a post-conflict society are absent,” he asserted.

Bosnian Serbs’ objections scupper strategy

The Justice Ministry told BIRN that the Council of Ministers failed to adopt the transitional justice strategy “as a result of objections by representatives of the authorities of Republika Srpska”, the country’s Serb-dominated entity.

Bitter divisions and recriminations between the country’s three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – have persisted since the war and continue to cripple efforts to address the past, as well as making the country’s complex political system dysfunctional.

Safet Softic, a member of the House of Representatives of the state parliament, said he believes that the strategy might not have been backed by enough lawmakers even if it had ever been put on parliament’s agenda.

“I’m afraid that, due to the political climate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been like this for years, we would have probably wrangled over the adoption of the strategy for a long time,” Softic said.

But Dusanka Majkic, a member of the House of Peoples of the state parliament, argued that the adoption of the strategy would have meant nothing, not only because it would probably not have been implemented, but that this was also “only a part of the problem”.

“The main issue is the lack of will to sit down together and agree politically on key things of importance for the future of this country. Unless that is done in the coming period, we should not expect any changes to happen, and not only in this field,” Majkic said.

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