Towards reconciliation – dealing with the past or leaving it behind?

A conference in Priština, entitled “How I see it”, provided young Serbs and Albanians from both Kosovo and Serbia, respectively, with an opportunity to discuss issues concerning reconciliation, transitional justice and EU integration.

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By Tatjana Medić and Mladen Stojadinović

Towards the end of last year, a conference in Priština, entitled “How I see it”,  gathered young Serbs and Albanians from both Kosovo and Serbia. Around 20 participants – mainly students, activists or volunteers from civil society organizations or political parties – discussed issues of reconciliation, transitional justice and EU integration.

Opening remarks were made by NGO activists and experts on the aforementioned topics, Nora Ahmetaj and Marijana Toma, who stressed the importance of bringing communities closer to one another, and of considering the role of the legacy of suffering in post-conflict societies. A short introduction was also provided on the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, and the need for re-establishing normal relations between the respective countries and nations; emphasizing that genuine reconciliation would be hard to achieve if the past is not seriously dealt with, and that refusing to confront the past is often justified through an overly-simplistic strategy of “forgive and forget”. Whilst the European Union could represent a valuable ally in the process of reconciliation, its pressure is not sufficient to successfully complete it, as the essence of reconciliation means that it can not be forced on people. Joint projects by once-warring parties, however, may become one of the triggers of future trust.

The participants then engaged in dialogue on transitional justice, in general, touching upon the concrete case of the former Yugoslavia. Four mechanisms of transitional justice – to establish truth, to establish accountability, to restore the situation where possible and to guarantee the non-occurrence of violence – were specified, whilst reconciliation was defined as incorporating and transcending these mechanisms.

In a situation where instituional reforms were not properly carried out, and the reactions of individuals and groups are still very much purely emotional, it is difficult to move forward in establishing the truth; an important precondition to further improving relations. Different versions of history and incompatible narratives are visible not only in everyday conversations and media reports, but also in history textbooks and education systems.

The needs of victims – whether Albanian, Serb, Roma and of other communities – should be acknowledged, because they have a legal and moral right to know who was the perpetrator and for what reason. However, one should also be aware that the truth can sometimes be opposed to mercy and forgiveness, and that wounds are still fresh; thereby further complicating political and even economic cooperation. Ultimately, not all perpetrators will be punished because it is impossible. What is important, however, is to ensure that the main figures of armed conflict are recognized as such.

The conference continued with workshops focusing on ideas and opinions about truth, justice and other elements of reconciliation. Forensic truths – as the most authentic truths – were recognized by all the participants as a stable foundation for establishing a joint view on the events that occurred. That is why initiatives for recognizing all victims of armed violence should be fully-supported.

There are still more than 12,000 people missing in Bosnia and some 1,700 in Kosovo, which has to be tackled. The guilt and responsibility of all individuals who were somehow connected to these crimes is necessary in order to improve inter-ethnic relations. Some participants also emphasized the responsibility of the international community for conflicts in the region, since their forces contributed (by doing or omitting to react) to a number of crimes and civilian casualties.

A number of interesting insights about the development of international criminal law – the Nürnberg Trials, Geneva Conventions etc. – were also provided. The prosecution of suspects is now an international obligation, aside from the moral considerations and pragmatic gains that could be acquired.

The issue of regional cooperation for the countries of the Western Balkans on their road to the EU was especially discussed. Perceptions of the ICTY between peoples is fairly bad, but it is doubtful that domestic courts would be able and willing to do their job independently and professionally without foreign pressure. Third-party interference, therefore, remains useful, but is never an adequate solution without a change in attitudes and behaviour of parties to a conflict.

The final part of the conference was devoted to the question of dealing with the past in Serbia and Kosovo. Participants were divided into two groups; the first one had the task of preparing arguments in favour of accepting a critical examination of legacies of the past; the second had to consider arguments against it.

Some of the mentioned arguments in favour of dealing with the past were that a) it is the only way of ascertaining truth, b) that it strengthens rule of law and is its precondition at the same time, c) that it contributes to a change of values and decreases the possibility of future violence, d) that countries of the region are too weak and small, and therefore cannot afford to threathen mutual exchange because of unclear things from the past.

Arguments against dealing with the past included that a) the truth is actually very difficult to determine, b) that it is an expensive endeavour, c) that it scratches fresh wounds, thereby complicating the future, and d) that business is already done between countries, and therefore it is not necessary to insist on the unpleasant and – for victims – painful confrontation with past deeds.

However, bearing in mind the European integration processes, its values of security and justice, and the stance of European institutions towards violence and the necessity of prosecuting perpetrators, as well as the fact that such a community could not tolerate internal frictions in the future, it seems unavoidable to try to solve all issues and not just gloss over them. Therefore, securing truth and justice – not just retributive, but also restorative – represents the only path towards reconciliation and to the changes of identities necessary to transform, as opposed to simply freeze, conflict.

The conference was part of the “Leadership Development Programme – Southeast Europe and the EU”, initiated by the College of Europe, Bruges, and TRANSFUSE Association, Berlin, and supported by the European Fund for the Balkans. The Programme itself lasts for a year, and this visit to Priština is just one event in its schedule.

This conference provided both an intellectual challenge and an important opportunity to meet new people from different backgrounds. Conferences of this kind, although of limited practical reach, raise awareness amongst youth of the necessity of closer cooperation, and are an important step in improving understanding about the post-conflict situation amongst future leaders and active citizens of the Western Balkans. TransConflict looks forward to participating in similar events in the future, as its focus on conflict transformation is closely-related to issues of transitional justice, reconciliation and international cooperation.

Tatjana Medić is currently completing her Master’s studies at the Department of Peace Studies at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Science. Tatjana previously worked as a project assistant at the Centre for Nonviolent Action. She is interested in peacebuilding and conflict transformation, dealing with the past in the post-conflict areas, work on reconstruction and rehabilitation, dialogue and reconcilation in post-war societies.

Mladen Stojadinović completed the Peace Studies Master Program at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade. Mladen is also a TransConflict Volunteer, with a focus on educational initiatives in the field of conflict transformation, such as TransConflict’s ‘Perspectives on Conflict’ initiative.

Tatjana and Mladen attended the conference as representatives of TransConflict Serbia.

To learn more about both Serbia and Kosovo, please check out TransConflict’s new reading lists series by clicking here.

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