Perspectives | Politics

Is genuine truth seeking still possible in post-Yugoslav states?

By - 28.09.2018

How to move from piecemeal to coherent and constructive peacebuilding.

My sister and I grew up in the very same household, at the same time, yet we remember some of our childhood events very differently. We sometimes argue over how this or that happened, or what a particular family member said at a particular moment.

Individual remembrance and societal remembrance work similarly. While facts are fixed, perceptions and memories are fluid and changing, context and people specific.

In Kosovo and the rest of the Western Balkans, this has far reaching implications for truth seeking (also sometimes interchangeably referred to as truth telling) — that is, the process of documenting and acknowledging human rights violations through which a state and society tell the story of a past of trauma, in order to bring redress and build a common, peaceful future. This definition, and the conceptual approaches used in this article, are inspired by the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and other truth-telling work in the region.

Truth seeking works with both facts and with perceptions of facts. Indeed, truth seeking is, on the one hand, about fact finding: methodically establishing facts in order to produce a single, quasi-evidentiary account of events, thereby contributing to a historical record preventing the manipulation or rewriting of history. While also serving the so-called ‘right to know,’ truth seeking goes beyond ‘trial truths,’ by showing the bigger picture of violence and trauma.

On the other hand, truth seeking serves another, less factual goal: that of creating a platform for all protagonists of conflict to talk about their truths. The process of speaking and hearing about what happened is said to bear strong psycho-social properties; that of bringing redress and recognition to victims, remembering them as individuals (and not mere trial elements). This focus on individuals also often leads to ‘humanizing’ those caught up in conflict, including from the ‘other’ side, thereby making progress toward reconciliation.

In other words, truth seeking is both about facts, and is not about facts. How then, to even dream of reaching a common version of the truth?

Interviews with high school students from severely war-affected regions show, for instance, a higher propensity of sympathy toward all victims than regions more spared by the war, regardless of their ethnicity.

Back to this sibling quarrel over childhood events. This is where a third element and goal of truth seeking comes into play, building on the first two: to provide a forum for a common memory — or truth — to emerge.

In Kosovo, facts established by court proceedings before various legal entities and other informal fact-finding methods provide a strong basis for some version of a common truth to be developed. But raw facts alone are insufficient to capture the diversity, complexity and emotion of the various truths that cover and envelop facts like layers of an onion. These layers depend on each and every one’s education, gender, age, ethnicity, personality, and so many more variables.

One would naturally think of Kosovar Albanians and Serbs being exposed to antagonistic narratives, hence holding different truths of their nonetheless common past. But within the Kosovar Albanian population, different truths are also sustained. Interviews with high school students from severely war-affected regions show, for instance, a higher propensity of sympathy toward all victims than regions more spared by the war, regardless of their ethnicity.

Ashkali, Bosniaks, Croats, Egyptians, Gorani, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Romani, Turks and other ethnic, national, religious, and other identity groups in Kosovo also tend to hold on to different memories from each other. But, similarly with Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, within each group there are distinctions of what is ultimately a shared past.

This diversity of truths in itself need not be problematic. But in Kosovo, both across and within ethnic groups, the existence of various opposed truths is still fanning the flames of ethnic divisions and antagonisms. Such truths will not be reconciled with anything short of both an agreed basic factual account that recognizes and respects all stories on all sides, while deconstructing myths and differentiating facts from fictions and perceptions, as well as a forum to receive all voices from the past.

Regional truth seeking failings

Despite several attempts at truth seeking, Kosovo — along with the other post-Yugoslav countries — is still missing a space where such a common version of the truth could be approached to serve the foundation of a common future.

Indeed, despite the overwhelming dominance of the criminal justice approach to dealing with the past in the region, several state or regional initiatives have risen… and fallen, most of them before the end of their mandate.

In 2001, Vojislav Kostunica, president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (then consisting of the still-united Serbia and Montenegro) announced the creation of the The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in Yugoslava to investigate the causes of the conflicts in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The underrepresentation of minorities and perceived partiality led to an absence of support for its mandate among civil society groups and the general public: It closed its doors a year later.

In Bosnia, two attempts at setting up an official truth commission (in the early and mid-2000s) never gathered parliamentary approval, nor the support of the wider public against the backdrop of these processes’ lack of transparency and consultation. These initiatives were also made unpopular by the fear that their mandates were allegedly too closely inspired by the South African Commission instead of being rooted in a local context — ownership was lacking.

In parallel, three local investigative bodies were formed in Sarajevo (The Commission for Investigating the Truth Regarding Suffering of the Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Jews and Others in Sarajevo in the Period Between 1992 and 1995), Bijeljina (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the Municipal Assembly of Bijeljina), and Srebrenica (The Commission for Investigation of the Events In and Around Srebrenica Between 10 and 19 July 1995).

Each time, these showed how crucial transparency, local ownership and public support are for such processes to go beyond mere establishment.

Only the latter led to any tangible outcome: a report published in June 2004. This was made public and formed the basis of an acknowledgement and public apology by the government of Republika Srpska for the war crimes committed in the municipality… until it was recently formally rejected by the entity’s current leadership.

None of these bodies’ mandates made it possible for victims to speak publicly. All of them were somewhat mistrusted or criticized for their lack of transparency and unclear mandates.

These different examples had many more particularities that this article does not dissect. Each time, the choice of a local, national or regional mandate, the different temporalities of the crimes looked at, the timing and context of their establishment, and the authorities backing them (presidential or parliamentary decision, external influence, etc.) had an impact on their course of being, and on their perception by the public.

Each time, these showed how crucial transparency, local ownership and public support are for such processes to go beyond mere establishment. Analytic work carried out in Bosnia after these had risen and fallen also showed that the lack of outreach on the benefits of truth seeking played a part in the limited public support they gathered.

In May 2006, against the backdrop of these failures, a network of civil society organizations from former Yugoslav states came together around a common vision: that of a regional approach to truth seeking. Such an approach was necessary given the history, regional dimension of war crimes, and the movement of victims and perpetrators across post-Yugoslav states.

This coalition started to advocate for the establishment of a — wordily titled — Regional Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia from 1 January 1991 to 31 December 2001 (know by its acronym RECOM).

The idea promoted by the Coalition for RECOM initially gathered unprecedented inclusiveness and grassroots support across the seven successor states: 6,700 civil society representatives were involved, 128 local and regional summits and eight international forums on transitional justice were held, and ultimately, 555,000 citizens from all post-Yugoslav countries expressed public support for the initiative.

Unfortunately, just over a decade later, the Coalition for RECOM has not managed to sustain and build upon the momentum created by this compelling start and the righteousness of its mandate, and it has progressively lost its potential to shape meaningful and efficient truth seeking in the region.

Addressing root causes of conflict, such as antagonistic and revisionist narratives about the past, is the only way out of the current frozen status quo in the Western Balkans.

This is primarily due to the fact that RECOM’s success (and mere establishment in fact) is tied to the unrealistic prospect of post-Yugoslav states — or more precisely, their governments and politicians — agreeing to support this regional entreprise to jointly deal with their past. This expectation overestimates the impact that civil society organizations can have in the context of the Balkans, where states’ rhetoric and engagements are still very much dominated by resistance to accountability and transparency about the past.

Had the EU played the game, this prospect might not have been so utopic, but the recent London summit of the Berlin process — an international summit about the Western Balkans  where EU backing for RECOM was fiercely lobbied by the Coalition — showed that the EU was unwilling to uncompromisingly push for this initiative beyond the significant financial support that it has provided to the Coalition.

Indeed, prior to the summit, the Coalition had succeeded in committing the governments of Montenegro, Macedonia, but also Serbia and Kosovo, to establish RECOM. Expectations were high (and maybe unrealistic) that an additional ‘push’ from the EU would create sufficient incentive for them to remain supportive, and for remaining Balkan states to commit and bring RECOM to life.

In the end, RECOM was taken off the agenda of the meeting, instead focusing on ‘more pressing issues’ such as the role of the ‘Balkan route’ in the migration crisis and the rise of the violent extremist threat in Europe.

This agenda setting is a clear sign of EU leaders’ lack of political courage — it is reactionary and symptomatic. It misses the point that addressing root causes of conflict, such as antagonistic and revisionist narratives about the past, is the only way out of the current frozen status quo in the Western Balkans, and the only way to sustain peace in the region.

Faced with such lack of progress, and as this is not framed as contradictory with RECOM’s regional mandate, some members of the coalition shifted support, formally or informally, to existing national truth-seeking initiatives — such as the presidential initiative in Kosovo for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, kicked off by the launch of its Preparatory Team in December 2017.

This national option has the institutional support that RECOM has lacked, but it fails in the transparency and independence department. While the examples from past regional initiatives make it doubtful that this will go beyond making headlines and distracting opinion, this lack of transparency is dangerous in that it is preventing critical observation of what could very well develop into a counter-productive transitional justice effort.

Indeed, examples from outside (including the case of South Africa) and established literature on transitional justice have shown how dangerous a badly conducted truth-seeking process can be: from re-traumatisation of communities of victims, to re-writing a victor’s history that can no longer be questioned, and from perpetrators escaping responsibility as a trade-off to the marginalization of some groups — to name just a few. These are risks Kosovo, and the region, can’t afford.

These experiences and researches have also highlighted ingredients for successful truth seeking. Truth seeking must proceed from a cross-community effort showing different truths — the onion layers from earlier. Local demand and local ownership are other crucial pieces of the truth-seeking puzzle, along with wide inclusive consultations, and political and financial independence.

I would also add to the list the meaningful engagement of young people in both truth seeking and transitional justice at large, not only because it is young people who will live with the legacy of it but because their account of how they experience the consequences of the war must inform any truth-seeking enterprise. These are other aspects in which Kosovo’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (and in fact, all previous institutional truth-seeking efforts) has to date failed to demonstrate satisfactory standards.

There are in fact many lessons learnt that have been drawn from abroad, and sometimes gathered in general guides to truth seeking, including, among other things, the ICTJ’s guide to truth seeking. Accounts of these approaches and methods are useful, but they need to be rooted in the context specific to local realities.

How can Kosovo fill its own truth gap?

In Kosovo, questions related to transitional justice have too often been approached with a magic wand style: How should we address this? Let’s create that! I am of the opinion that we should not search for more options in Kosovo where the general fatigue for ad hoc — almost magical — international mechanisms to deal with the past must inform future decisions in this regard.

In fact in Kosovo, short of any efficient official truth seeking, a variety of initiatives led by like-minded civil society organizations have sprouted, with little cooperation nor cohesion. Nonetheless, these efforts are genuine, locally owned and inclusive — and hence bearing high individual and societal truth-seeking potential.

The Kosovo Memory Book — following regional examples in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia that were intended to serve as a basis for RECOM and reconciliation — has produced a very precise record of casualties from the armed conflict in Kosovo, documenting 13,517 war victims and 1,603 potential victims whose status have not yet been fully clarified.

The strict methodology of its database, displaying the original sources of all data and linking on average eight sources for each victim or event, after a strict protocol of cross-verification and systematic questioning of sources’ impartiality, has been independently assessed as documenting all or nearly all the human losses during conflict in Kosovo, minus a few dozen undocumented deaths. Civil society in other post-conflict transitional societies such as Iraq and South Sudan are now being trained to use similar methodologies of establishing factual records of casualties.

The Oral History Initiative has, since 2012, given voice to a huge number of people, focusing on their experience of Kosovo’s past, giving each subject a unique and special space to express their truth.

One should seek to build on existing initiatives and their different forms and methodologies.

These two examples alone, which illustrate the first two components of truth seeking explained earlier — those of fact-finding and multiple perceived truths — do not do justice to the great contributions made to truth telling and memory in Kosovo, through which, over time, civil society organizations have gathered an invaluable (and unreplicable) quantity of primary data on victims’ and others’ stories. Much of this work has great potential but lacks resources, support and space. Why not use what we already have instead of thinking again of something new?

Patched together, these stories paint a complex, multicolored, dynamic and ultimately human picture of Kosovo’s recent past. That complexity is as close as it gets to a common truth at the moment. As outlined above, a new and formal truth-seeking mechanism, in order to be genuine and efficient, would need to foresee transparent and inclusive consultations.

I have no faith that this is possible in contemporary Kosovo. I am also not in favor of ‘risking’ producing a unified institutional truth that would set in stone unilateral versions of history and freeze any constructive dialogue on the past. Plus, I believe enough donor money and people’s hope for change have already been spent on unrealistic prospects. Instead, one should seek to build on existing initiatives and their different forms and methodologies.

This could be done if civil society organizations working on dealing with the past in Kosovo, and in particular those with truth-seeking material, genuinely began to work together, starting by mapping the different valuable contributions to truth seeking and memory there are out there, and conveying a unity of multiple truths to the public. In the face of such civic union, and with the influence of donors supporting this partnership, the government of Kosovo would have no choice but to endorse existing truth-seeking efforts and to provide the required resources and support.

Is this idea lacking pragmatism too? Is it realistic to expect civil society organizations in Kosovo to team up and demand government support for the remarkable yet piecemeal and too often donor-oriented work they are currently doing?

If you ask me, that is more realistic than asking Serbia, Croatia, BiH and Kosovo’s leaders — whose political credibility would be challenged by an open inclusive dialogue about the past — to agree on RECOM. It is also more realistic than expecting the presidential Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be impartial, transparent and inclusive.

This solution ‘only’ requires civil society leaders in Kosovo to overcome some of their real or perceived rivalries, in a bid to break away from the unhealthy and avoidable competition for funding transitional justice in Kosovo and to start building a truly common truth.

Note: This article represents the author’s personal views and not the views of organizations she is associated with.  

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.

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