Bosnia’s transitional justice strategy requires political support

Two years after it was commissioned, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a draft Transitional Justice Strategy; however doubts persist as to whether the document will be adopted, despite widespread acceptance of its importance.

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By Denis Dzidic

A draft of the Transitional Justice Strategy – the aim of which is to help right injustices and heal the traumas caused by the war – is still waiting to be put to a vote in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s parliament. The document – which was drafted by a team of 15 experts, selected by the Council of Ministers, with the help of the United National Development Programme (UNDP) – addresses the most sensitive issues in Bosnian society, ranging from the establishment of the facts behind war crimes through to reparations, memorials for victims and institutional reform. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the document has already proved controversial, even though its has yet to be made fully public.

Goran Simic, Aleksandra Letic and Edin Ramulic, all members of the expert group, and Thomas Osorio, an advisor on the rule of law and human rights for UNDP, believe the Strategy can help Bosnia recover from the serious human rights violations that occurred during the early 1990’s war. Their view is shared by Refik Hodzic, director of communication of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, who believes that that Strategy “offers the solutions that Bosnia needs”. However, Hodzic doubts that Bosnia has the political will to adopt such a document.

Aleksandra Pandurevic, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of the State parliament, has already expressed her doubts about the draft Strategy, claiming its measures were too expensive.

Truth, reparations and reform

The Strategy proposes the creation of non-judicial mechanisms to establish the facts about the Bosnian war and to encourage people to come forward with their accounts. “The vision is to create an open, practical and productive dialogue about the past across all levels of Bosnian society, so that the past is no longer distorted. The goal is to achieve satisfactory outcomes for victims and to build efficient, professional and credible public institutions,” says the Transitional Justice Strategy draft.

In order to achieve this vision, the expert group has put forward a number of proposals to the Bosnian government. To give victims of the Bosnian war the right to “truth”, the Strategy advises speeding-up the search for the 10,000 people who remain missing and the creation of a non-judicial fact finding mechanism, though the document does not discuss the mandate or form of such a mechanism.

Perhaps the key proposals of the draft Transitional Justice Strategy are reparations for victims and the setting of common rules for building and preserving memorials. The document claims that the current reparations system is “discriminatory and unsustainable”, and proposes the adoption of a new, coherent and state-wide system of reparation for all victims of war. A comprehensive reparations database would be created, and even though it would be run by the Bosnian Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees, the autonomy of the separate entities – the Federation and the Republika Srpska – would continue to be respected.

However, Aleksandra Pandurevic believes that paying reparations to all the victims of war would push Bosnia into “economic meltdown”. “There is pressure on Bosnia to take on financial obligations that we cannot fund, unless we want the country to go bankrupt. I will not accept that. When we talk about reparations to former camp detainees or victims of war, we should remember that Germany only paid reparations 60 years after the end of World War Two, while Bosnia is being pushed to do it now. Bosnia does not even have a stable economy,” said Pandurevic.

However, Goran Simic and Thomas Osorio claim that Bosnia has the money to finance these projects and that the government will have to deal with the problems of war victims at some point. “We believe the money is there. Nothing is new here and these are standards expected by European institutions, which will have to be financed. I think we cannot plan laws according to how much money we have at a certain point,“ explains Osorio.

Simic adds that it is essential to “prioritize” facing the past. “Our society will have to ask itself one day whether it is more important to build a stretch of road or give a mother who lost four sons and 20 family members a dignified life. Whether we spend money on buying a minister a new car, or on healing a highly traumatized woman who was raped in a camp for six months,” asks Simic.

The expert group estimates that the Bosnian authorities would have to spend roughly €9m on the strategy overall, though this amount does not take into account the full costs of the reparation programme or the construction of memorials.

To resolve the many controversies that surround the building of memorials for victims in Bosnia, the Transitional Justice Strategy proposes a set of common standards and criteria for both memorials and commemorative activities. It envisages the creation of a national memorial to all the victims of war in Bosnia, and the construction of similarly inclusive memorials in every local community.

Osorio claims that it would be ideal if the government took over the creation and maintenance of memorials, as this would preserve them as “places of memory” in perpetuity. This view is shared by Edin Ramulic – a representative of a victims association from Prijedor and a member of the expert team – who explains that one of the biggest problems faced by Bosniak returnees to Prijedor is that the mayor in that town refuses to allow them to build a memorial and commemorate their dead. “The Transitional Justice Strategy would remove the rights of municipal mayors to decide, especially when we talk about symbolic reparations. This would help reconciliation, because this issue is stoking nationalist tensions“, says Ramulic.

However, this solution seems impossible for Aleksandra Pandurevic, Chairwoman of the Human rights Commission of the State parliament. “This is too ambitious. You cannot have consensus between different ethnic groups. I believe in the end everyone will find ways to honour members of their own group“, says Pandurevic.

Strategic declaration or active plan?

The final piece of the Transitional Justice Strategy envisages a Bosnian state vetting process for public office holders, to ensure that they are not associated war crimes or other breaches of human rights committed during the war. The implications of this particular reform may weaken political support for the document.

Even so, Refik Hodzic argues that an all-encompassing Transitional Justice Strategy is the only way for Bosnian society to “deal with burdens of the past”. “It’s important to note that the success of the Strategy depends on the political will of those in power. If its measures are not implemented in a dedicated, honest way, then we cannot hope for anything good to come of it. This is about the total reform of our community and a clear will to deal the past. What I see in Bosnia today is anything but that,” said Hodzic.

While Hodzic fears the Strategy might be left a “dead on the page” – mirroring the fate of the Bosnian State Strategy for prosecuting war crimes cases – Pandurevic, a member of parliament, disagrees, claiming that parliamentarians will state their objections and improve the document when the time comes. “The document contains a number of good ideas. When it comes before the Bosnian Parliament, we will discuss them. We certainly do not need a definitive strategy at this stage,“ Pandurevic added.

According to the draft document, the Council of Ministers would name a Commission for the implementation of the Transitional Justice Strategy, which would have representatives from the Republika Srpska, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Brcko district.

A new NGO in Bosnia, called the “Association for Transitional Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina” and composed of members of the expert team, will work to promote the Strategy and monitor its implementation. The expert team predicts that much more will be known about possible objections to the document after the draft comes before the Bosnian parliament.

Denis Dzidic is a member of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s (BIRN) Justice Report team.

This article was originally published by Balkan Insight’s Balkan Transitional Justice initiative, a regional initiative funded by the European Commission and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland that aims to improve the general public’s understanding of transitional justice issues in former Yugoslav countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia).

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