Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: Expert Discusses Truth And Reconciliation In Balkans

  • Robert McMahon

As the war crimes tribunal in The Hague moves forward with high-profile prosecutions, a separate effort is underway in parts of the former Yugoslavia to help citizens overcome the trauma of nearly a decade of war. Authorities in Yugoslavia and Bosnia have requested the help of the former deputy chairman of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Alex Boraine, to help them set up similar bodies. Boraine spoke recently with RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon about the challenges the region faces in coming to grips with its past.

New York, 7 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia continues to generate hope and controversy about the search for justice in the aftermath of four Balkan wars. But a separate, quasi-judicial exercise getting underway may have an equally potent impact on the lives of people in the region.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his country, saying he hopes it will bring a social catharsis. Another commission is under discussion by officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and human rights campaigners in Croatia have begun to look into such a commission for their country as well.

They are patterned after the widely publicized South African model, which was seen as an effective instrument for moving the country beyond the abusive era of apartheid.

Alex Boraine was deputy chairman of the South African commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu and now serves as president of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York. His advice has been sought by Kostunica as well as organizers of the Bosnian commission. Croatian human rights organizations, he says, have also approached him for suggestions on how to move the country forward from its period of ethnic warfare.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Boraine says truth and reconciliation commissions should complement the work of the war crimes tribunal, rather than compete with it. The tribunal, he stresses, is putting on trial a relatively small number of leaders for the worst crimes against humanity:

"When you go back to Serbia and to Bosnia and Croatia and to these towns and cities you find people who hardly even know where The Hague is, and they want some attention where they are. So our approach is a much more holistic approach, where we do not deny the absolute necessity for justice where that is possible, but anybody must surely appreciate that full justice is never possible."

His center, he says, is particularly interested in creating a forum for the many thousands of victims of the Balkan wars. He says in his visits to the former Yugoslavia, he has encountered widespread denial of the crimes committed against other ethnic groups, similar to the denial of whites in South Africa to the injustices suffered by blacks under the apartheid regime.

By providing a major focus on victims telling their stories in public, Boraine says, an overwhelming body of testimony can counter the denials. But he says truth commissions must be careful not to get caught up in what he called a "victim psychosis."

"If you simply perpetuate [the idea of] one loser and one winner, then that's an absolute recipe for further conflict. So I try to make that point as strongly as I can. It's not easy. Former enemies don't like each other, and sometimes [the commission process] is very protracted."

South Africa's commission was composed of three committees which investigated gross human rights violations during a 30-year period and provided reparations and rehabilitation. In some cases, it granted amnesties that freed perpetrators from prosecution for crimes committed over the same period.

The ground-breaking commission did its work in public through the late 1990s. Boraine is convinced this transparency, and the widespread media attention it generated, was a key reason for its popularity as a model today. His five-month-old center for transitional justice is already advising 14 nations on truth and reconciliation matters.

Boraine also says South Africa benefited from having two towering moral figures -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu and then-President Nelson Mandela -- as the guiding forces of the commission.

Boraine says he tells the governments he is advising that South Africa's experience cannot be exactly replicated. But he says it can be a useful model for countries committed to conciliation, openness, and an end to vengeance.

"Leadership is absolutely key in all of these, but you can't manufacture a Mandela or a Tutu. You've got to find your own people. I can assist and I can guide and offer advice and help and materials, comparative studies. We'll do all of that. But in the end, they have to own [the process] for themselves."

Boraine is advising countries throughout Africa and Latin America as well as officials in Northern Ireland on ways to begin the institutional search for truth and justice. But he says the new reformist leaders in the former Yugoslavia face a particularly tough challenge in lifting their people out of the past.

"I'm very worried about the future of the Balkans. We saw what happened recently and is still happening in Macedonia. It seems to be endemic. And I go [to Serbia] and they want to talk to me about the 14th century or 1943 and what the Nazis and the Croats did to the Serbs and why doesn't the world take note of that."

Boraine says the Balkans would be well served by a regional truth and reconciliation commission, given the cross-border nature of the wars of the past decade. He says local commissions could be a precursor to a regional one, holding joint hearings and sharing information.

A hearing in Bosnia on the siege of Sarajevo, for example, could involve cooperation with the Yugoslav commission because of the support Bosnian Serbs received from Serbia during the siege. Under such a joint commission, Boraine says, Sarajevans could relate their stories not only to Bosnians but to Serbs.

He is convinced the people of the former Yugoslavia could achieve more permanent closure on their recent past if their leaders would allow such a commission to function openly and deal with matters such as apologies, accountability, and reparations.

Boraine acknowledges that South Africa is far from finished in its transformation. Crime and corruption are major problems there, as well as lingering denial among whites about their role during apartheid.

But Boraine finds his compatriots are facing up to their problems in a healthy, public way. South Africa, he says, is farther along because of its truth and reconciliation effort.

"South Africa is still in transition, still consolidating its democracy, still developing a human rights culture. But there's no doubt that the truth commission sort of catapulted it to a much faster rate (of reform) than otherwise."

Boraine says the South African commission never demanded forgiveness by the victims who came to testify. But he said many victims used the opportunity to state publicly that they could not carry on hatred forever. At the heart of the reconciliation process, he says, is a desire in the human spirit to move on and not be paralyzed by the torments of the past.