Predrag Kojović: The front line includes every centimetre

We all know what the act of Willy Brandt kneeling in front of Auschwitz meant for the salvation of the German soul: it was the catharsis of the German society. We need such a catharsis, but unfortunately we lack leaders that have the courage to do this.

Predrag Kojović is a former journalist and war correspondent. He is one of the founders of the political party Naša stranka and its president in a second term of office. Naša stranka submitted a Draft Law on Prohibition of Denial of Genocide, Holocaust and Other Crimes against Humanity to the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The draft law was adopted by the House of Representatives of the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (in 2016), but it has never been put on the agenda of the House of Peoples of the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In spite of the resistance in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (members of SDA were claiming that it was endangering the freedom of opinion and expression), Kojović said that Naša stranka intended to insist on the adoption of this law. We spoke with Predrag about this draft law, its importance, but also the needs of our post-conflict society. Do we truly need a legal regulation to prohibit the denial, minimisation, trivialisation, justification or condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity or war crimes? And what is expected from it?

L. G.: We frequently speak and listen about facing the past. However, where are victims in all of this? Is their position within transitional justice mechanisms and remembrance policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina adequate?   

P. K.: If we say that there are two general models for achieving justice in post-conflict societies, the South African model, which includes a truth finding committee, and the Hague model established for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and some other countries, I believe that the first model, the South African model, is much more effective. Especially since, in my opinion, that process contributed to the cohesion of their society and facing the crimes, whereas our mechanism turned into a competition as to who has more judgments in The Hague. The lesson from the 1992-1995 war that we should have learned is not what they did to us, but rather what nationalism does to a society, to a country. To be honest, all people that were killed in the war, are mine, I see them as citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, which were part of a horrible plan that also involved the neighbouring countries and internal accomplices and almost dealt a death blow to this country. Luckily, the country survived and is getting better every day. But the war truly wounded us. And we still haven’t learned the lesson, but we rather continued accusing one another. And then you have politicians like Mr. Dodik, who is using every chance to rub salt into the wound that still has not completely healed, and when I say wound, I mean the victims, of course.

L. G.: What do we actually lack? Facing the past, admitting what happened, apologies, repentance? 

P. K.: Facing a difficult past is not something that only we are doing, and we are certainly not the worst case. Almost every European country has a period of its history they wish never happened. Not everyone was wonderful all the time, societies fell into some moral abysses. However, they searched for the strength to face it, to overcome it and to build a society in which something like that could never happen again. Politics that aims at creating a society in which persons of different religion and ethnicity live in a single system without endangering one another is a historical test. When a society falls, what matters is the question whether it is able to stand up again, face itself and go in a different direction. Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing this test. I was thinking about the fact that my parents were born immediately after World War II and they faced a much worse situation than the one we are facing today. That war was also to a great extent characterised by religious and ethnic crimes the proportions of which were much bigger and much more serious than the ones committed during the past war. They lived in a country that had been brutally destroyed, Europe was destroyed as well. They managed to overcome all these challenges, and when I was born, they had ensured a nice, well-regulated, stable and safe country with lots of advantages. I am sorry that my generation failed to leave a better state for young Bosnians and Herzegovinians than the one we found when we matured.

L. G.: Naša stranka proposed a Draft Law on Prohibition of Denial of Genocide, Holocaust and Other Crimes against Humanity in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Where is that draft law currently?  
PK: During the last term of office, Naša stranka sent a Draft Law on Prohibition of Denial of Genocide, Holocaust and Other Crimes against Humanity into the relevant procedure at the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was a strong and expected resistance, but the draft law was adopted by the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, it has never been sent to the House of Peoples and there has never been a public discussion regarding this law. We will certainly continue insisting on this law. Of course, we would like this law to be adopted at the state level, but we have always followed the principle that, if something cannot be done at the state level, that it should be done at a lower government level, whenever possible. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs such a law. There are probably some lucky countries in the world and in Europe, the criminal codes of which do regulate such issues. However, a country with a tragic recent history should in my opinion do more to fight such things, especially if we have in mind that the war crimes in case of which the ICTY in The Hague passed the relevant judgments, war crimes such as genocide, which was characterised as such in the judgment, are being brutally denied in the political arena and public space on a daily basis. Glorification of war criminals is all around us: student residence buildings named after Radovan Karadžić, streets named after persons who were openly acting as fascists in World War II. The protection we have now in the Criminal Code in the form of an article about causing racial hatred is something I know very well and I also know that it is impossible to implement it in case law. It is a so-called conditional article. It is like saying 'If someone is hit, it is prohibited to throw flower pots from a window on the street.' We want to prohibit throwing flower pots on the street, irrespective of the fact whether someone will be hit or not.

L. G.: How important is it actually to have such a law? What importance does it have today?  

P. K.: I am sorry that this issue has to be regulated by a law, that persons don't show any compassion for a family of different ethnicity, whose members were killed. The first thing in the process of wound healing and building a better society is understanding what happened and what turned people into killers of their own neighbours. And we have to understand that it is unfortunately possible to create a view using the media and public institutions according to which an ethnic group does not have the status of persons, but is de facto dehumanised in order to enable brainless persons to commit mass war crimes and ethnic cleansing. And that's it. I would prefer a different solution, which does not make a law necessary, one in case of which we are able to understand what people can understand, namely that persons belonging to all ethnic groups were killed during the war and that justice must be sought while witnesses and perpetrators are still alive. And then we have to do everything in order for justice not to be unattainable. The adoption of this law will in a way mean that we are finally drawing a line under what had happened in the 1990s here and a beginning of healing of our society. Whether this will happen over the next six months, two years, four years or during the next term of office is something I cannot predict, but one thing is certain – without the law, there is something rotten in our state.

L. G.: What would it mean, if the denial and glorification of war crimes, including genocide and holocaust, were prohibited in only one entity, in this case in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina? 

P. K.: Political manipulation using war trauma is a political pre-election or election strategy here and in a strange way, it suits everyone, both those who are insulting and attacking and who support war crimes and genocide in Srebrenica, and those who are allegedly defending themselves, and are actually preventing a systematic prohibition. At the moment, what matters in my opinion is that, when someone comes to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and says that no genocide was committed in Srebrenica, the law is applied. Whether this person is sending these messages from Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia or Austria, is something we will deal with, but if I can solve this issue in one part of the country, I prefer solving it, with the hope that some day, it will be applicable throughout the country. This law is not directed against any ethnic group. I therefore believe that we can and should enter this process in a truly honest and fair way. This is a matter of principles. Everyone who committed a war crime must be held accountable. Especially persons who had command responsibility. And, I am convinced that many crimes have still not been prosecuted.

L. G.: When it comes to guilt and responsibility, to what extent do we know concept of collective responsibility or to what extent there are distorted concepts of collective responsibility? To what extent are we able to separate individual and collective responsibility and how important is this for reconciliation?      

P. K.: This type of collective criminal liability is something that we should escape from. Persons identify with their ethnic group and assume part of liability from that ethnic group and the blame for crimes that were committed in the name of that ethnic group. This is about the fact that there was a nationalist, extremist and radical regime that mobilised citizens to implement a criminal policy. Every person holds individual responsibility and a whole ethnic group cannot be guilty. But there is certainly some sort of a feeling of guilt and responsibility. Although it might be too subtle for our public space. Serbs are not responsible for crimes committed in their name, Bosniaks are not, Croats are not. But they do have moral responsibility. As a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a human being I feel responsible for Srebrenica, Doljani, Kazani, Trnopolje and all other crimes. That is a moral responsibility when facing a situation or thing, not the responsibility for these crimes.

L. G.: We might be on the margins of Europe (or European Union), but where do we stand in terms of geopolitics? How does the current global pro-right-wing ideology affect us?      

P. K.: The EU elections are over and it seems that when it comes to the global political arena, we are forced to fight some battles that we considered forever concluded in 1945. Since it is a global matter, the front line goes from Trump's America, over Brexit, right-wing movements in Europe, to terrorist attacks at a mosque in Sri Lanka or Australia. Our zone of responsibility is Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have to do everything we can to win again, but every one of us, every citizen has their zone of responsibility, starting with their family, home, colleagues, people they meet in the street. We no longer have the intention to keep silent and look the other way in case of reawakening fascism. The front line includes every centimetre. When you react to someone who is beating a woman on the street, when you react to a stolen wallet in the tram, when you refuse to let someone get a service simply due to nepotism or without waiting in a line. When we stand up and fight for the values that we believe should be values of our society, we are actively engaged in the fight against today's fascism. I invite every citizen to participate in this fight, we need every activist we can get.    

Sarajevo, 2019/2020

Forum Civil Peace Service (forumZFD) and TRIAL International, organisations that have been active in the field of transitional justice and facing the past, initiated a constructive dialogue about the necessity to adopt a law on prohibition of denial of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population in 2019. In an attempt to establish and hold open discussions with various actors and relevant groups about this topic, but also a wider dialogue and to raise awareness of the public at large and politicians about the topic of facing the past, a researcher, Lejla Gačanica, conducted a series of interviews with relevant persons as part of the publication Calling War Crimes by Their Right Name – Nazivanje ratnih zločina pravim imenom. The publication can be accessed by using the following link.

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