Truth-telling in Bosnia-Herzegovina: The RECOM Initiative

Piše: Louis Monroy-Santander

Truth-telling is a needed part of any transitional justice strategy, it requires planning and a comprehensive, holistic understanding if it seeks to support victims, create non-contradictory narratives around the past and support national and regional reconciliation. It must be understood as a complementary tool to other transitional justice practices such as criminal justice procedures, vetting, lustration and remembrance work, but never as a replacement for these
Processes for dealing with past atrocities through truth-telling initiatives offer a space outside perpetrator-focused Criminal Tribunals, giving victims center stage in postwar reconstruction processes.  They play a role in giving victims a voice, creating accurate records of the past that can help, through clear procedures, strengthen victims’ ability to be recognized as right bearers and establish a common, non-contradictory narrative of past events.  In this sense, it is important to look at truth-telling practice in postwar settings to understand Recom’s presence in the social reconstruction process of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

1. Truth-telling as postwar transitional justice practice
Some have stated that truth-telling is necessary for rebuilding relations between former adversaries, at the individual, community and national levels.  Truth-telling has been promoted as a space for victims, for trauma-healing and for empowering them in the move from victims to survivors to active and politically-aware citizens.   At the same time many warn about the pitfalls of truth and public testimony

Dealing with past human rights violations via truth-seeking initiatives has become a basic component of transitional justice processes.   The purpose of focusing on the truth is to acknowledge the hidden parts of a society’s past (Nordquist, 2006).  During war or through authoritarian regimes, forced disappearances and mysterious deaths are often circumstances marking such violent processes where people are left without having information on the whereabouts of missing relatives or about what exactly happened to them during conflict or a period of regime change.  For Christie and Wagner (2001) this is where dealing with the past becomes a process for searching for the truth, a thorny issue in the process of social reconstruction.

Some have stated that truth-telling is necessary for rebuilding relations between former adversaries, at the individual, community and national levels.  Truth-telling has been promoted as a space for victims, for trauma-healing and for empowering them in the move from victims to survivors to active and politically-aware citizens.   At the same time many warn about the pitfalls of truth and public testimony, of how truth-telling is not the universal remedy to the moral problem of illegitimate social violence (Eastmond, 2011) and how it does not necessarily heal victims after testimony, often leading to double-traumatization as pain and suffering are aspects that fall outside the planning of enquiries and processes for accountability.

In this sense truth-telling should be seen as a transitional justice mechanism that can only reach its goals of trauma healing, reconciliation and sustainable peace only when included in a holistic approach that combines it with memory work, criminal accountability, reparations and institutional reform.  Of course this is easier said than done as Orlandi (2014) reminds us that thinking about simultaneous implementation of transitional justice mechanisms brings questions of interrelation, complementarities, sequencing and appropriate timing.

RECOM Consultation in Montenegro
Truth commissions have been presented as vehicles for truth-telling, complementary to judicial fact-finding that done International Criminal Tribunals and Domestic Courts.  Many advocates and critics have written about their justification, structuring and risks.  For instance, Martina Fischer (2011) establishes that Truth Commissions are means to engage and confront society in a quite emotional national dialogue that looks at what structures made human rights violations possible, giving civil society a sense of local ownership so that dialogue leads to concrete actions.  She warns that these commissions should be put in place only where there is a robust civil society, one that creates alliances, as well as opposition, with parliaments, governments and administrations in order to engage in adequate institutional reforms and strengthen rule of law via truth commission work.   Truth commissions, by acknowledging victims suffering, can enhance the opportunities for dealing constructively with particular grievances as well as push for the transformation of state institutions, strengthening those who are willing to implement reforms towards human rights protection (Van Zyl, 2005).

Balancing between the advantages and problems of postwar truth commissions is important to understand the scope and limitations of truth-telling.  They can uncover past violations, document past atrocities via commission reports as well as listen to both victims and perpetrators.  But with weak mandates and lack of resources, they can end up being simple public relations for either governments or civil society organizations.  Although they may come up with well elaborate, conscientious and in-depth reports about the past, the question is to what extent their recommendations will be accepted at governmental levels and whether their work meets victim expectations.  If they are ignored by governments, fail to be inclusive of all relevant actors in the process and coupled with situations where known perpetrators remain in public office or in close proximity to their victims, then such commissions create more tensions than before.

2. Establishing Recom: truth-telling, controversies and challenges


With this balance in mind one can look at the process for establishing the RECOM initiative and its role in transitional justice processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The Recom initiative sees Recom as a “regional commission for the establishment of facts about war crimes and other serious violations of human rights committed in the Former Yugoslavia” .  Its mandate establishes a timeframe for the crimes under study from January 1, 1991 until December 31, 2001.

It is interesting how different actors view Recom’s work in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  According to the ICTY, both this Tribunal and Recom are seen as sharing a common ground in terms of focusing on local ownership for conflict transformation .  Whereas ICTY sees itself as accountability focused, it views Recom as space for assembling an expansive record of abuses that can help analyze the role of national institutions in the atrocities.
The Recom Coalition was established in 2008 as a consultation process which included representatives of civil society, victims and their families, refugees, veterans, lawyers, artists, academics, journalists and other individuals.  This consultation led to debates over Recom’s mandate and the creation of a statute, interpreting Recom as an intergovernmental committee established by all states in the territory of former Yugoslavia, tasked with investigating all allegations of war crimes and human rights violations connected with the war, listing names of war victims and victims of crimes related to the war and collecting information related to war camps and centers of forced detention.

In this process of debate, dialogue and consolidation, Recom has gone through three key phases in its formation.  A first phase aimed to assess the needs of victims and their expectations of a regional commission, a second phase where participants were asked for suggestions on shaping the commission (either as a process of local, national and regional consultations) and a third phase focused on drafting a statute (Fischer, 2016).  As can be imagined such a long and comprehensive effort has not been void of controversy and difficulties. 

Skopje 2010
As the Recom campaign aimed to give a voice to victims, controversies regarding who should be included in this category emerged as debates around prioritizing civilian victims over war veterans made their way.  More difficult however are the different views on the type of results that a social debate and dialogue on the past should have: whether it is about establishing a shared view of the past, providing a climate to enable acceptance of multiple truths, developing empathy for opposing narratives or providing a forum for alternative debating and understanding of history.  Adding to this complexity, some have criticized the lack of transparency in decision-making processes for Recom, seeing the process of the initiative as quite a conflictive one (Fischer, 2016).

Additionally to this, it is important to note a few structural issues that affect Recom, as well as other truth-telling initiatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Martina Orlandi (2014) mentions two.  The first is the fact that the General Framework Agreement (Dayton), although helping stop war in 1995, institutionalized deep divisions into the Bosnian state structure, affecting  truth-telling as each side of the war perpetuates their own version of the truth, a process that often goes unchallenged at the political level. 

The General Framework Agreement (Dayton), although helping stop war in 1995, institutionalized deep divisions into the Bosnian state structure, affecting  truth-telling as each side of the war perpetuates their own version of the truth, a process that often goes unchallenged at the political level
The second issue is the fact that transitional justice was initially focused clearly on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), an initiative to deal with war crime perpetrators  that was given too many expectations: fostering reconciliation, healing the wounds left by the war and fulfill victims’ demands for acknowledgment.  In regards to the first issue, it is important to say that ethnic divisions within state structures motivate the creation of contradictory versions of the past, leading to ethnic groups claiming exclusive ownership over the truth.    In regards to the ICTY, its initial lack of outreach led to a hijacking of justice initiatives by political elites that criticized the Tribunal for being ethnically biased or not concerned enough with local needs for justice.

3. An inside view

It is interesting how different actors view Recom’s work in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  According to the ICTY, both this Tribunal and Recom are seen as sharing a common ground in terms of focusing on local ownership for conflict transformation .  Whereas ICTY sees itself as accountability focused, it views Recom as space for assembling an expansive record of abuses that can help analyze the role of national institutions in the atrocities.  The ICTY values Recom as a victim-centered process that records the suffering of individuals, making it essential for public healing.  A Balkan Insight article presenting views from Bosnian and other regional NGO leaders, mentions how Recom supports principles of respect for human rights, supports judicial institutions through crime and perpetrator mapping and strives to institutionalize reconciliation practices among citizens
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Campaigh in Sarajevo
Despite this recognition, Recom itself views the obstacles to its work.  In two Balkan insights articles, these concerns are particularly expressed: in a May 2013 issue it states that its current challenge is the transition of truth-telling from an NGO level to state authorities in Bosnia .  This same article states that some of its member organizations are concerned with the many levels of compromise that Recom has had with politics, lobbying presidents and other political figures and how this could affect the establishment of the truth.  Another article, dated November 2015, makes the case even clearer by stating how politicians in BiH fail to address reconciliation, reducing truth telling to official visits and the signing of documents but no bigger steps being made to involve state action in this process

One of the most notorious statements was made by a Recom representative Dzenana Karup Drusko, who in 2009 stated that there was an immediate need in BiH for a body, besides the courts, that could continue investigating what happened in the country and lead to public engagement on the truth .  Luckily, I was able to meet Dzenana and hear her insights.  For her, Recom’s main achievements have been to gather victims from different groups, all sides, and different sectors into one process that began as small consultations and grew into regional consultations.  For her, as a connections process it has been quite successful, contributing to strengthening the organization.  At the same time, she recognizes that the process has met fierce opposition from various groups, in all states involved, particularly those representing bigger victim associations, which tend to be politically influenced, constantly trying to establish a monopoly over the truth. 
Transitional justice was initially focused clearly on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), an initiative to deal with war crime perpetrators  that was given too many expectations: fostering reconciliation, healing the wounds left by the war and fulfill victims’ demands for acknowledgment. 

On one hand, she states, that Recom as a meeting point for civil society organizations makes the initiative unique as there is no similar alternative to it, which matters more at a time where less and less organizations and donors are working on dealing with the past or transitional justice in Bosnia.  On the other hand, reduced support for Transitional justice in the region will be felt by various member organizations of the Recom coalition.  Also, the constant change in Bosnian politics means that agreements with local and national politicians are short-lived due to constant elections and changes in the country’s political system.

4. Concluding remarks

Truth-telling is a needed part of any transitional justice strategy, it requires planning and a comprehensive, holistic understanding if it seeks to support victims, create non-contradictory narratives around the past and support national and regional reconciliation.  It must be understood as a complementary tool to other transitional justice practices such as criminal justice procedures, vetting, lustration and remembrance work, but never as a replacement for these.  The case of Recom, an initiative grown from local to regional consultations has fostered such controversy in its internal and external dialogue, shows that truth-telling is a site of contestation, where issues of victim representation and the reach of testimony in truth commissions come to the fore.  More concerning is the current challenges faced by Recom, not only in terms of the critiques from its member organizations but more difficult, the barriers set up by the ethnic-focused political system in the country and lack of serious commitment and action from certain political actors in the country.
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