Is Reconciliation a Priority for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Author: Lejla Gačanica

In the Commission Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership of the European Union, the fifth priority under the democracy area reads: “take concrete steps to promote an environment conducive to reconciliation in order to overcome the legacies of the war”. The EU recognises in this document that the political environment is still not conducive to reconciliation or overcoming the past, and that political leaders often dispute the established facts pertaining to wartime events. War crime cases continue to pile up, while the position of civilian victims of war is not adequate. Despite the fact that the December 2022 candidacy status should have been an encouragement to BiH on its path to the EU, in a country where fueling ethnic conflicts is almost the political mainstream and which has so far done little and unconstructive work on building reconciliation, the fifth priority still remains to be seen high on the agenda.

The Bosnia and Herzegovina Report 2022 states that BiH still lacks “a countrywide policy framework for dealing with the legacies of the past”, citing few positive examples and a lack of progress. As for the mentioned need to adopt a strategy on transitional justice, it is noteworthy that the draft Strategy was completed a long time ago but never adopted – the time for the strategy to be useful and meaningful has now already passed. We most certainly do not need yet another document that will not be implemented and will purely serve to tick the box. To take the example of the Revised National War Crimes Processing Strategy – it is very certain that war crimes cases will not be completed by the end of 2023, as is stipulated. Prosecutions of war crimes are slow, while the passage of time and the fact that both victims and perpetrators are dying constitute a reality in which some people will never see justice served.

Victims and survivors are being revictimised in peace. Transitional justice has mostly been exhausted through criminal trials, which rarely – in their factual scope – have effect in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Denial, justification, trivialisation, and glorification of convicted war crimes and criminals are ubiquitous, despite the criminalisation of such actions. Perhaps the best illustration of the lack of will to overcome the past is legislation the adoption of which was persistently resisted in the state level parliament; due to the alarming situation in society with the denial of genocide and other war crimes and the frantic glorification of war criminals, the legislation was imposed by the High Representative in 2021. While on the one side, there has indeed been a decrease in the denial or glorification of war crimes, on the other side, the reaction of the political leadership of the Republika Srpska has triggered an avalanche of tensions that are currently only intensifying. And on the third side – the valid regulations are not being applied, as the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina has still not filed a single indictment even though it has received a significant number of criminal reports, with some investigations being suspended in a very concerning manner. This situation is extremely harmful to the society, in which ethnic tensions intensify, victims are humiliated, and distrust in state institutions – and the state itself – grows.

Contesting the crimes and, thus, the suffering of the victims is one aspect of the absence of a systemic approach to addressing the legacy of the conflict past. The status of civilian victims of war and the reparations are still a battle fought by survivors. In 2019, the Committee against Torture issued a decision against BiH for failing to meet its obligations towards a victim of wartime sexual violence who was denied an effective and enforceable right to adequate and fair compensation, as well as the fullest possible rehabilitation. Although BiH is obliged to establish appropriate reparation mechanisms, the Decision has not yet been implemented. Compensation claims began to be decided in criminal proceedings for war crimes only in 2015, after great efforts by civil society.

Therefore, what can be done regarding the fifth priority from the Opinion? First of all, reconciliation should not be viewed as an abstract concept, but rather, as interventions that are necessary in the society (especially since the recommendation is general in itself). Some of the interventions imply a profound change of attitudes, which will certainly not happen quickly or easily, due to the context that has become resistant to attempts at a critical and constructive approach to the past. The second area of intervention is the establishment of a framework for the future, i.e., reforming the way in which the past is processed, multiplied and used to install mono-ethnic narratives.

The first and foremost step must be to stop the manipulation of the past coming from highest political ranks. The implementation of the provisions of the BiH Criminal Code (Article 145a) that prohibit denial, justification and trivialisation of the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as glorification of convicted war criminals must begin and must be timely, because an atmosphere of impunity is being created that further encourages destructive narratives. Furthermore, amendments to the BiH Election Law are needed to extend the responsibility for hate speech beyond the pre-election period.

Collective memory must be open to acknowledgement of the suffering of all victims and condemn all crimes, regardless of who committed them. Memorialisation in this sense should be much more than the installation of “proper” monuments that do not meet the social need for memory in BiH, especially in communities with a violent past. The example of the memorial in Kazani (cited in the Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina) is not a positive step example, but an insipid surface attempt without any substantial change of or an encouragement to change the narrative of the past. The critical culture of memory must enter the ethnic narratives of the past, including the culture of monuments, education, media.

The new revision of the state level strategy for war crimes processing must be realistic in terms of the time required to handle war crimes cases; at the same time, it is necessary to depoliticise these processes and set requirements for efficient proceedings with a victim-oriented approach.

The status of civilian victims of war requires a systemic and truly prompt approach. In the Republika Srpska, the deadline for survivors of the 1990s war to claim their rights expires in October. The status of children born of war, as well as victims of sexual violence in the entities and Brčko District, is unharmonised. Victims in both entities are obliged to pay high court costs and face the impossibility of collecting the awarded compensations. Victims face not only the difficulties in exercising their right to reparations, but also the fact that they may never experience any kind of satisfaction.

Finally, all the aforementioned should come from the state, as a reflection of maturity, ability and willingness to deal with the legacy of the war. Civil society will always support and advocate these processes, but their efforts must be translated from an alternative narrative into official state policies. Not only that the brunt of dealing with the past should not be exclusively borne by the civil sector, it is also necessary that this change comes from within and systematically, instead of being opposed to these processes. In addition to formal procedures, it is important to work on changing the political and social climate – such as opening a social dialogue, a constructive approach to communities and youth, including different actors, and changing the perspective on the future.

Staying in the status quo is not an option for BiH, which the EU should also take into account. The fifth priority has neither been specified clearly enough nor has there been a strong enough demand for its fulfilment. Changing the situation that actually perfectly suits those who should change it will be a huge challenge, but at the same time, its prolongation only strengthens the belief that there will be no change and that this country can be nothing but ethnically divided. It is extremely dangerous to support this narrative, which has taken root, from the constitution of the highest state institutions to the flags flying in the cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fears of a new conflict and the continuous dissemination of war ideologies keep this country, but also this society, in a state of emergency where all other segments are viewed through the lens of ethnic interests. At the same time, on a regional and geopolitical level, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a red flag, a hot spot that can flare up with any new tension in Europe. This is part of the harsh reality in which peace building must be insisted upon as an important guarantee of stability.

The views expressed in this text do not necessarily reflect the views of the Initiative for Monitoring European Integration’s members or the Initiative itself.