The 2018 Western Balkans Summit was held in London on July 9-10. As Denisa Kostovicova explains, it was hoped that the summit could formally launch a regional commission of inquiry – RECOM – which would register victims of human rights violations to assist in the reconciliation process in the region. However, even though the summit put legacy issues on the agenda, it dashed RECOM’s hopes at least at this stage, highlighting the lack of a concrete EU program to respond to past crimes and advance reconciliation.
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Despite Brexit and the paradox of an outgoing member state aspiring to lead the agenda of EU engagement with the Western Balkans through the German initiative called the Berlin Process, the London Summit on the Western Balkans of Last week left a lot of hope.
This is particularly the case of civil society – NGOs and associations – representing all the ethnic groups involved in the wars of dissolution of Yugoslavia, gathered around an initiative advocating the creation of a regional commission of inquiry at the level of the State, RECOM. They hoped that a declaration signed by the Balkan states (initially by Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Croatia) at the London summit would start the formal process of its creation. This does not happen.
Civil society activists must now ask themselves how to advance their cause. Their disappointment highlights the dilemmas facing not only the Summit host, but also EU policy in the face of the legacy of war crimes in the Western Balkans. The dilemma is serious given that the closure of the Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) late last year, which was the lynchpin of EU policy towards the he criminal legacy in the region and reconciliation, reveals the void in this political area.
In the run-up to the London Summit, supporters of the RECOM initiative have made a compelling case. Civil society activists have advocated for RECOM as a regional commission of inquiry that would record war deaths and survivors of gross human rights violations and the circumstances of their death and suffering. Although the facts of war crimes always lend themselves to different interpretations in divided post-conflict contexts, establishing the facts of war crimes in the first place would prevent political manipulation of casualty numbers and advance reconciliation efforts.
A restorative approach to seeking justice through victim testimonies rather than through war crimes trials would also be conducive to nurturing empathy toward victims belonging to another ethnic group. All ethnic groups in the Balkans view victimhood exclusively from their narrow ethnic perspective. Reconciliation requires recognition of the pain and suffering of others.
Faced with criticism that a regional approach to transitional justice could override or even marginalize national-level initiatives, the response from RECOM advocates has been clear in that regional and national initiatives are not incompatible. Finally, many civil society organizations have already begun recording war deaths, demonstrating the importance of accurate factual accounts of these bloody war years. Not only does recording the victims by name and surname, as well as the circumstances of their suffering, give them recognition, but the pattern of killings also reveals new insights into the nature and conduct of war.
But these civil society projects do not have the legitimacy that they would acquire if they were carried out officially and regionally following an interstate agreement and the commitment of states to the process; hence the hopes raised by the London summit and the start of the investigation process carried out by the States in the Balkans.
For what not RECOM?
If the case for the creation of RECOM is so compelling, why did the formal launch of the regional inquiry process not take place at the London Summit? The inability of RECOM activists to convince governments in the region to support the fact-finding exercise – which may be an apolitical exercise – is ultimately a question of politics. Any progress toward reconciliation, however modest, poses the greatest threat to the Balkan elites. Reconciliation undermines the credibility of nationalist rhetoric that has proven useful in diverting attention from poor governance, including corruption.
Montenegro’s commitment to RECOM on the eve of the London summit shows that this is not necessarily so. In fact, taking into account the criminal past is an integral part of progress in democratization and good governance. But hoping that RECOM campaigners can reach an agreement, securing the endorsement of governments which will then be rubber-stamped either at an EU-linked summit or by the EU itself, overestimates the impact of civil society on policy-making in the Balkan context. and underestimates the resistance of Balkan governments to answer for war crimes (including the resistance of Croatia, an EU member state).
Furthermore, this situation can be interpreted as the reluctance of EU member states to denounce Balkan governments for their reluctance, at best, and obstructionism, at worst, in dealing with the past. Above all, the results of the London summit underline the importance of the role that the EU itself plays in supporting efforts to overcome the criminal legacy in the Balkans. The EU’s policy of conditionality on war crimes, which required cooperation with the ICTY as a condition for countries’ progress in the European integration process, has been vehemently contested. Its effectiveness is the subject of ongoing discussion and evaluation. But there is no doubt that it constituted a central point of the debate on justice and responsibility.
Without this, it is evident how easy it is to sweep issues of justice and accountability under the rug. The evidence from flawed domestic war crimes prosecutions is extensive. The tolerance for abusive nationalist rhetoric as well as denigration and insults towards victims of war crimes in public discourse is telling. The post-ICTY situation reveals the need for some form of leadership and external involvement to strengthen local champions of truth, accountability and justice.
Enter the void
With its focus on legacy issues, the London summit on the Western Balkans remained in limbo after the Hague Tribunal closed. The signed declarations on legacy issues constitute a contribution to the mainstreaming of issues related to war crimes and human rights violations, and aim to ensure the commitment of Balkan states to work towards their resolution.
The summit highlighted the important issue of people missing from wars; he did not ignore the responsibility for sexual violence in war and the fight against the stigma surrounding victims of sexual violence, and he recognized the importance of regional approach and cooperation to resolve the issues outstanding issues related to inheritance.
In a candid moment on the sidelines of the summit, a Balkan official shared with me his genuine uncertainty about whether the right path to reconciliation should be: leaving the past behind and moving forward, or deepen pain and wounds in the name of reconciliation. EU policy, which unequivocally does not go beyond rhetoric and lacks a concrete action program and assessment of progress in combating past crimes and promoting reconciliation, also appears uncertain.
Such a policy is also a signal to local elites that the signatures do not mean much, since neither EU member states nor the EU as a whole, much less local civil groups, are willing or unwilling to can hold them accountable. That a deep sense of injustice could fester and hurt, with implications beyond the Balkans, does not worry them either.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Denisa Kostovicova – LSE
Denisa Kostovicova is Associate Professor of Global Politics in the Department of Government at LSE. She’s on Twitter @DenisaKost