Following his latest visit to the Western Balkans, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks expressed concern that “reconciliation has stalled and is being overtaken by rising divisions ethnic groups and polarization in the region,” specifically highlighting genocide denial. , glorification of war crimes and criminals, historical revisionism, inflammatory speeches and ethnic segregation in education.
This state of affairs is not a surprise. It would be naive to assume that (re)establishing economic and social ties would be enough to (re)build relations between formerly conflicting parties in the post-Yugoslav space. Given the recent history of massive and widespread human rights violations, only appropriate outcomes from transitional justice mechanisms (and above all, war crimes investigations and prosecutions, as well as the establishment Intergovernmental Panel on Facts) could contribute substantially to progress. in reconciliation. These transitional justice mechanisms, however, depend on the political will of the powers that be – and therefore, they are currently delivering exactly the results described by the Council of Europe commissioner.
On the other hand, the common goal of the Western Balkan countries – membership in the European Union – could be an important driver of reconciliation. The EU’s renewed interest in the region, as well as the upcoming strategic documents and high-level forums dedicated to the Western Balkans, should therefore not miss the opportunity to inspire tangible progress in the reconciliation process.
First of all, the strategic document announced for the accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union, currently being developed by the Commission and announced for February 2018, should include concrete measures aimed at promoting the reconciliation process. These measures should not be based on conditionality; Conditionality is an appropriate approach to foster cooperation with the ICTY, but it could backfire if applied to the broader reconciliation process. Reconciliation must reverse the causes of conflict and be based on shared values and the restoration of the dignity of victims as rights holders. EU support should be focused on positive encouragement and, unlike the positive encouragement so far directed mainly towards the civil sector, the encouragement should be directed towards the governments of the Western Balkan countries.
Two key measures would lead to tangible progress in the regional reconciliation process and should be encouraged by the European Union: the creation of the regional truth commission (as recommended by the Coalition for RECOM), and support for the prosecution of war crimes after the end of the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
First, the Intergovernmental Extrajudicial Fact-Finding (Truth Discovery and Revelation) Commission should be established, reaffirming the internationally recognized right to truth – to know the full truth about the events that occurred. The commission should ensure that minimum standards of the right to the truth are respected, through the creation of a common database of facts on war-related human rights violations, drawing on the legacy of the ICTY.
Accomplishing this task would not only contribute to the creation of a common memory of all the victims, but would also contribute to building a culture of solidarity through the mutual recognition of the injustices done to the victims and to preventing any repetition of such injustices. war crimes. The creation of the commission must be an undertaking of the parties previously in conflict; However, as countries in the region all aspire to become members of the EU, the EU is not a “third party”, but a legitimate participant in efforts to establish the truth commission. To this end, the EC should, in its next strategy, clearly communicate to leaders and societies in the Western Balkans the importance of establishing a truth commission.
Second, to ensure the prosecution of suspected war criminals in national courts, another key mechanism of transitional justice, a working group within the International Residual Mechanism (which will fulfill the remaining functions of the ICTY) should be established. Its task would be twofold: to monitor trials conducted by national courts and provide support to national prosecutors, as well as to provide specialized assistance to Western Balkan countries in resolving bilateral issues related to universal jurisdiction, which have recently acquired a strong dimension. policy. To this end, in its next Western Balkans strategy, the EC should clearly express its support for the creation of such a working group within the international residual mechanism.
Generally, the results of transitional justice mechanisms create the conditions for reconciliation; EU support for these mechanisms worldwide is based on the policy framework supporting transitional justice, through which the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy is implemented. Both proposed measures fully correspond to the content and spirit of the EU policy framework and, moreover, could be replicated in future reconciliation processes around the world.
Reconciliation in the post-Yugoslav space is an often neglected issue both regionally and internationally, partly because it is a politically sensitive issue, but also partly due to the passage of time since armed conflicts. Nevertheless, reconciliation is the basis of the security of the Western Balkans and the sustainability of the bonds woven through the links between the economies and societies of the region. Therefore, in its ongoing work on strategic measures that would accelerate the accession of Western Balkan countries to the Union, the European Commission could contribute to the stability and prosperity of the region by including these proposed measures, thus leading to progress in the reconciliation process.