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Long-awaited justice and reconciliation in the Balkans

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More than 20 years after the first war linked to the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the legacy of violence still persists throughout the region. 12,200 people are still missing, 423,000 refugees and displaced people are still unable to return home, around 20,000 people remain stateless or at risk of becoming stateless and at least 20,000 women victims of wartime sexual violence are still in need. stronger support.

All this, combined with impunity for war crimes, hinders reconciliation and endangers the full enjoyment of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Measures to eliminate impunity

A fundamental condition of reconciliation is bringing to justice those who have committed war-related crimes, including war crimes linked to sexual violence. Justice is necessary not only to ensure accountability of those who committed violations; it is also necessary to provide reparation to victims who also suffer from a lack of support and recognition of their suffering.

The work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, has made possible the prosecution and trial of senior leaders implicated in war-related crimes. But countries in the region must step up their efforts to continue this work at the national level.

National justice systems, including witness protection systems, should be strengthened to enable them to operate more effectively.

Another fundamental point is that amnesty, which leads to impunity for serious human rights violations, is not acceptable, as the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in 2011 and the European Court of Human Rights in the 2012 judgment Marguš v. Croatia.

Many are still missing, others displaced

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 12,200 people are still missing after the wars in the former Yugoslavia. States in the region have a moral and legal obligation to redouble their efforts to resolve these cases, in order to provide relief to the families and friends of the missing.

To achieve this, effective cooperation between countries in the region is necessary. Recently, such cooperation has yielded important results: in the city of Zadar, Croatia, the bodies of Serbian civilians were exhumed from a mass grave and in Sotin, Croatia, civilian victims of Serbian occupation were exhumed.

According to the UNHCR, there are still around 423,000 refugees and displaced people in the region. Solutions must be found for them, particularly for those who live in collective centers. Significant progress has been made in the context of Sarajevo Process, which concerns the search for durable solutions for refugees. New housing is under construction with the help of the Council of Europe Development Bank.

Solutions must also be found for the 20,000 people, inside and outside the region, who are stateless or at risk of becoming stateless, particularly the Roma.

Access to the truth

The truth is essential to reconciliation. The NGO initiative RECOM This initiative to determine and disclose the facts about war crimes has allowed the people of the region to better understand the importance of the reconciliation process. During the remaining years of the ICTY’s mandate, much effort will be devoted to the tribunal’s efforts. awareness program, which aims to raise awareness among citizens of the region, particularly young people, about transitional justice. Some have expressed concern that this process is late and that a sense of injustice, resulting from parts of the ICTY’s work, is embedded in the minds of the people of the region. It is crucial that these concerns are openly addressed and discussed as part of the court’s outreach program.

The education systems of countries in the region play a central role in this context. However, in the Balkans there are ethnic divisions in the field of education, which represent a serious obstacle to reconciliation. The Council of Europe regional project Inclusive education – Human rights, vulnerable groups and minorities, presents a way to resolve this problem.

Regional dialogue and cooperation

Recently, very important steps have been taken towards effective interstate dialogue and reconciliation. Last April, Serbian President Nikolić issued an unequivocal apology for the war crimes committed by Serbian forces in Srebrenica, declaring: “I am on my knees and beg forgiveness on behalf of my people for the crime committed in Srebrenica. »

Also last January, Bosnia and Herzegovina signed a protocol with Serbia on cooperation in the prosecution of war crimes and in April with Kosovo and Serbia signed a political agreement in northern Kosovo.

A common responsibility

One of the main challenges facing societies emerging from conflict is dealing with the past. Significant progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Reconciliation in the Balkans must be achieved through justice, that is, through effective investigation and prosecution of war-related crimes and the provision of adequate reparations to all victims of war. This cannot be delayed any further: it is up to national governments to step up their efforts.

Nils Muiznieks

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Visit the Commissioner’s thematic site on post-war justice and reconciliation in the region of former Yugoslavia


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