Perspectives | Reconciliation

The president must be careful when establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

By - 28.02.2017

Hashim Thaci’s second attempt at discovering the truth about the past must be better than his first.

On Feb. 24, 2017, I received an invitation from President Hashim Thaci to participate in the second consultative meeting of civil society members, religious leaders and representatives from the diplomatic corps. The meeting was set up to discuss the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Kosovo, and is set to take place on March 1.

It is the second meeting of this kind, with the first held on Feb 13. Two meetings in two weeks leads us to believe that the president is serious about this initiative. It is in stark contrast to his efforts with the inter-ministerial working group that Thaci himself created in June 2012, which was tasked with developing a strategy on dealing with the past and reconciliation. To date, that strategy has never been finalized.

To be clear, there is nothing to criticize about Thaci hosting these meetings. These initiatives are meant to be launched by state presidents, and he is doing everything at his disposal to try to shed light on the past in Kosovo. This could well be a step forward, especially if the president is serious and willing to place his political weight behind it.

I often hear voices from civil society members, politicians and victims associations alike stating that the Kosovo leadership should persuade Serbia to apologize. However, Kosovo has not been able to persuade Serbia to pay reparations for war crimes, or offer an apology.

States mostly ‘voluntarily’ enter into negotiations for redress as a result of pressure, whether gentle or more coercive, from a group associated with a reparation movement, or international actors. The international community could pressure Serbia to offer an apology, but it should be entirely on Serbia to decide to clean its past and take some responsibility.

Experiences of 41 existing Truth and Reconciliation Commissions show that great commitment is needed from all members of society.

However, the president’s plan to establish a TRC, which, for the public and members of civil society at least, has seemingly emerged out of thin air, adds another layer of confusion, especially on the eve of the special court beginning operations. The timing of this plan may also be seen as a political calculation, rather than something aimed at meaningful social change.

If the president wants to establish a TRC as part of some political bargaining between him and the international community under the pretext of stability and peace, then I confidently say it is doomed to fail. Judging by his work with the inter-ministerial working group, Thaci’s track record in handling the subject of ‘dealing with the past’ is not the best.

Establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The experiences of the 41 existing TRCs around the world shows that great commitment is needed for the process, not only by the president, but from all members of society. Evidence also shows that a TRC should be given a clear mandate and an operational budget. It is a must that Kosovo owns this process, and decides to allocate funds from its budget.

There are well-defined guidelines for a commission of this nature (independence, autonomy, time-frame, membership, etc.) and the necessary expertise exists in Kosovo, especially within civil society. In the case of Kosovo, the question of regional cooperation should also be considered.

Two important lessons should be kept in mind prior to establishing a TRC in Kosovo. First, the independence of such a commission must be guaranteed and secondly, the mandate must be feasible and set within a reasonable time-frame, three years for example.

The president has shown willingness by inviting both domestic and international stakeholders to support him in establishing the TRC, and displayed this commitment in front of the media, but this is serious business. Establishing a TRC without the involvement or contribution of all segments of society, including minority groups and associations of victims and missing persons would be a dangerous game.

Does the president want to sacrifice justice for peace?

Selecting the Commissioner

The most common reasoning when a president appoints a well-respected member of society to a national commission is to select someone seen as above politics and impartial. I have been thinking for long time about whether such an individual exists in Kosovo, one who would have been accepted by all communities.

The president may seek advice, and search for a potential Commissioner from outside of Kosovo, but I strongly believe that the initiative should have a bottom-up and not top-down approach, and that any externally enforced solution or advice is not going to work.

Experiences with other TRCs tell us that only in extreme cases have governments sought foreigners to form the commission. I’m looking forward to what the President will share with us in the upcoming days, but if he wants to appoint an external individual as a Commissioner, I do not believe that such action will bear fruit.

To me, two questions are crucial in setting up a TRC in Kosovo. The first is simple: What does the president want out of the commission? The second is much more complex: Does he want to sacrifice justice for peace?

A central question for all TRCs is whether their search for truth is compatible with bringing human rights violators to justice, and the question of amnesty. With human rights violators often still playing prominent roles in society, a question that this commission will face is whether to grant amnesty to the wrongdoers still walking free both in Kosovo and Serbia, in order to promote reconciliation.

In terms of national consultations, the general recommendation would be that, under current circumstances, the time is not ripe to do this. More inclusive and detailed planning needs to be conducted, as well as a summation of all previous initiatives undertaken on dealing with the past, whether formal or informal.

Last but not least, this planning must be done urgently, and in close cooperation with representatives from ethnic minority communities, and associations of victims and missing persons. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-recurrence should also be closely consulted. It is this body that should be the first sought for advice on the formation of a TRC in Kosovo — not the U.S. Embassy in Prishtina, which appears to have been Thaci’s first port of call.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.