Comment 19 Mar 12

Justice and Reconciliation Cannot be Delayed

Justice and reconciliation must not be delayed further in the region of the former Yugoslavia, and it is up to national governments to increase their efforts.

Thomas Hammarberg


The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia was marked by gross human rights violations, including ‘ethnic cleansing’ and killing of civilians.

More than twenty years after the first war, the legacy of this violent past still lingers across the region, endangering the full enjoyment of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The return to normalcy has been too slow and some societies in this region remain polarised along ethnic lines. Many victims of the wars have not yet received adequate reparation for the harms they suffered.

Reconciliation has been hampered by numerous obstacles to clarify the past. Impunity for wartime crimes has not been eliminated, and there are still some 13,500 missing persons whose fates are not clear.

The estimated 20,000 women who have been subjected to wartime sexual violence remain in a particularly vulnerable position and deserve stronger support from the states concerned.

There are also approximately 438,000 refugees and other displaced persons whose legitimate claims for reparation have not yet been met.

In addition, the situation of about 18,000 people in the region who are stateless or at risk of statelessness, especially Roma, poses serious human rights and humanitarian concerns that need to be addressed in compliance with agreed European and international standards.

During my visits to the region, I have stressed that justice is key to reconciliation, and that it must be justice without distinction. Efficient national judicial systems must be established not only to reinforce the rule of law, but also to increase the necessary public trust in the judiciary and effectively prevent future human rights violations.

The work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has been groundbreaking, making possible the prosecution and trial of senior leaders involved in war-related crimes. Now, resolute action is required at national level to solve all pending war-related criminal cases.

Regrettably, the efforts made so far by governments to provide adequate reparation to war victims have generally not been successful. An approach centred on the human rights of the victims is necessary. In particular, fair and durable solutions should be found to end the protracted displacement of refugees and other persons.

I have observed with interest the efforts undertaken so far, not least by the Croatian and Serbian Presidents, to recognise wartime crimes and to establish and recognise the truth. Public and official acknowledgements of the facts, as well as acceptance of responsibility are important steps.

A regional truth and reconciliation commission could be an important tool to overcome present difficulties. States in the region should provide more support to the realisation of this idea.

Such a truth process would counter the ignorance and denial of the gross human rights violations which are unfortunately still prevalent in the public and political discourse in the region.

The education systems in the region should promote genuine knowledge of history, restore tolerance and trust between the peoples - especially the younger generations - and counter ethnic polarisation and discrimination.

Europeans have learned from history that peace and security not based on the principle of justice could be extremely fragile and short-lived. Post-war justice aimed at inter-ethnic reconciliation and social cohesion is a long-term and complex process whose success depends on a supportive, mature political climate and unfailing will and determination on the part of political leaders.

The reconciliation process should be a priority for all states concerned, as well as for European institutions. This is the only way to heal open wounds and ensure a stable, prosperous future for all peoples in the region.

Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

 He launched on 19 March in Sarajevo a paper on post-war justice in the former Yugoslavia .

 Read more about the Commissioner’s work on post-war justice and reconciliation in the region of former Yugoslavia.

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