Author: Erwan Fouéré

Dealing with the past in the Western Balkans

Today we receive a report whose creation has itself been a part of what has brought us to where we are. It represents the toil of nurturing the tender fields of peace and reconciliation and the plodding labour of opening the bowels of the earth to reveal its raw elements that can build and destroy.

Words of President Nelson Mandela upon receiving the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, South Africa, 1997.

The most difficult challenge facing all societies emerging from conflict is that of confronting the past in a manner which will bring  reconciliation and lasting stability. Dealing with the past can be  a long and painful process. But. as the South African example has shown, it is the only way for a post conflict society to move from a divided past to a shared future.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established following the election of President Mandela in 1994, was itself in part inspired by the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation established in Chile following the end of the Pinochet regime in 1990. This was one of the first comprehensive post conflict attempts to deal with the past in the modern era, by bringing the identified perpetrators of the worst human rights violations to justice, and at the same time fostering a process of reconciliation.

The countries of the Western Balkan region have yet to address this challenge. Long referred to as the region which has produced more history than it can absorb, the Western Balkans encompass countries which have emerged from conflict and which are at different stages of their journey towards membership of the European Union. But that journey is itself overshadowed by deeply polarised societies which feed on nationalist rhetoric and sectarian politics.  This makes any attempts at dealing with past injustices all the more difficult. It also raises  fundamental questions as to whether long term stability and reconciliation in the Western Balkans can be achieved without confronting the past. The painful legacy of the conflict in the region includes many deeply sensitive areas such as the unfinished task of the International Commission on Missing Persons, eliminating the scourge of landmines and also the ongoing work on transitional justice in countries where the judiciary remains weak and subject to political influences.

The European Union is uniquely placed to showcase its own experience in overcoming the legacy of war and creating a process of integration based on the rule of law. Reconciliation didn’t happen overnight. But the European integration project reopened doors closed by conflict and created a framework for coming to terms with the past and for reconciliation. The European Union’s increased focus on reconciliation in its engagement with the Western Balkans is thus particularly welcome.

Post Conflict Unfinished Business.

There are some fundamental reasons for confronting the past in order to foster a process of lasting reconciliation:

- firstly it is the importance of recognising the dignity of those victimised by abuses of the past. As a former Director of Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, underlined “If we fail to confront what happened to them, we argue that those people do not matter, that only the future is of importance. We also perpetuate, even compound, their victimisation”;

- secondly, it is the necessity to prioritise the rule of law and a process of transitional justice guaranteeing due process for all identified perpetrators and to render justice to the victims;

- thirdly, it is the element of deterrence, putting an end to impunity and establishing an independent judicial system and democratic governance guaranteeing government accountability so as to prevent a recurrence of such violations.

Failure to address the challenge of reconciliation could easily endanger the long term stability in a post conflict society. As shown by both the Chile and South Africa experience, a successful reconciliation process  requires a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional approach. For the Western Balkans this implies building a society based on the rule of law with an independent judiciary, promoting integrated education from primary to tertiary level in a multi ethnic and multi cultural environment, building trust between former opponents and ethnic communities at both national and local level, promoting history teaching that does not whitewash the past or perpetuate stereotypes, and supporting all efforts that can contribute to the development in society of a ‘community of values’. 

To ensure the best chances for a successful reconciliation, a number of important conditions should be met :

- a reconciliation process should involve all sectors of society;

- it should emerge from the society itself and be encouraged rather than imposed from outside; it should include a multidisciplinary approach, from history teaching to education, sports and culture.

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

In terms of the judicial process, the most significant development with regard to the war crimes during the early and mid nineties in the Western Balkans was without doubt the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ( ICTY ). Throughout its 24 year history from 1993 to 2017, in calling to account those responsible for the worst atrocities since World War Two, it established an incomparable record  in international criminal and humanitarian law. It delivered 161 indictments and accumulated a wealth of evidence and jurisprudence. The International Residual Mechanisms for Criminal Tribunals which followed will preserve this rich legacy and promote best practices in humanitarian law.

Some would argue that, while the Tribunal will have brought closure of past injustices for many, it will have also created a feeling of victimisation for others. In some cases, convicted war criminals were welcomed home as heroes and even included in ruling party lists of candidates for election. 

In this respect it is important to remember that one of the four tenets of the work of the International Tribunal was “to contribute to the restoration of peace by promoting reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia”.  Had the Tribunal’s decisions been accompanied by parallel efforts for reconciliation in accordance with its mandate, this could have helped to mitigate the feeling of victimisation. 

Already in 2005 in its report entitled : “The Balkans in Europe’s future”, the International Commission on the Balkans stated that “The challenge facing the international community at present is how to translate the post-war conditionality of the ICTY which is charged with examining concrete crimes into one that looks forward and concentrates on the strengthening of European values across Balkan societies”. More recently, Serge Brammertz, the former Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY admitted that the Tribunal had not achieved reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia : “As we have seen, the crimes have left wounds that still have not healed. Convicted war criminals continue to be seen by many as heroes, while victims and survivors are ignored and dismissed”.

Lustration Committees.


The termination of ICTY’s mandate  brought added focus on what actions the region itself has launched or will take in the future in dealing with the past. 


There were some attempts at establishing Lustration Committees in the region. But as was the case in Macedonia, these efforts had more to do with retribution and revenge against political opponents than with the search for justice and reconciliation. The Lustration Committee established in 2008 by the then government led by former Prime Minister Niloka Gruevski became so discredited that the government was obliged to terminate its work following repeated criticisms levelled against it by the international community. The Venice Commission for example pointed to the potential “misuse of political, ideological or party reasons, as grounds for lustration measures”. In addition, the European Court of Human Rights issued verdicts revoking a number of the Committee’s decisions.

RECOM and role of Civil Society.

Arguably the most comprehensive effort at putting in place a mechanism to promote truth and reconciliation in the Western Balkan region is the so-called “RECOM initiative”. It has brought together an impressive network of civil society organisations and individuals which advocates the establishment of a Regional Commission for the establishment of facts about victims of war crimes and other serious human rights violations committed in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 2001. It has gained particular prominence in the recent past and has been discussed at summit level within the region. This in itself is a success for RECOM and a direct result of the pressure it has brought to bear on the region’s leaders. The EU has also committed financial resources in support of its activities, and has referred to its role in the 2018 Strategy Paper issued by the European Commission on the EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans.

However, the initiative has yet to gain more than just vocal support by all the region’s leaders. Translating this verbal support into concrete action remains essential if the initiative is to achieve its goal for the establishment of an intergovernmental commission involving all the countries of the region.  The Chairman’s conclusions of the discussions at the most recent summit under the so-called “Berlin Process”, bringing together the EU and Western Balkan leaders, which met in Poznan in early July of this year, makes specific reference to both the “Joint Declaration on Missing Persons in the framework of the Berlin Process” and the “Joint Declaration on War Crimes”, and mentions RECOM. The conclusions also refer to “the importance of recognising and respecting international and domestic court verdicts on war crimes, rejecting hate speech and glorification of war criminals and supporting domestic prosecutors in bringing perpetrators to justice”.

Sadly, as we have seen, words are not enough to guarantee  concrete action and a collective and determined effort by the region’s leaders. The longer the delay of the political leaders in accepting the need for putting a mechanism in place that will deal with the past and open the way for reconciliation across the region, the more difficult will be the chances of the region achieving lasting stability. 

Perhaps the best way to reach this goal in the long run will be for enhanced efforts in all areas that touch on reconciliation at the grass roots and across local communities throughout the region. The role of civil society in this respect remains vital. More than in any other region, due to the heritage of history, weak institutions and the lack of or absence of the normal checks and balances that we take for granted, the contribution of civil society actors is second to none in ensuring government accountability, both at national level and in local communities. If the process of reconciliation can be incorporated in all activities promoted by these organisations and supported by the international community, it will help to create this “community of values” which will bring together all sectors of society. This bottom up approach if successful would bring added pressure to bear on the political leadership in each country.

In the South African case, the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were accompanied by a whole range of activities at local level, often spearheaded by women’s organisations and local community leaders. This generated a collective effort in fostering a culture of human rights and reconciliation throughout the country.

To be fair the Western Balkan leaders have taken a number of initiatives, albeit at the instigation of the EU, which should hopefully contribute to the overall effort of building trust and fostering greater interaction and connectivity in the region. The Regional Youth Cooperation Office is already up and running and brings together youth organisations from across the region.

Promoting cultural links will also help to bring down barriers and overcome stereotypes. This is particularly important in a region where the parents of today’s youth and members of the older generation remember the days when they could travel freely without restrictions across the former Yugoslavia. Today, there are not only frontiers but also administrative restrictions  not to mention psychological barriers making free movement more difficult and complicated.

In the education sector there are successful models of integrated education in multi ethnic communities, such as the Nansen Dialogue operating in several schools in the Republic of North Macedonia. History teaching and developing common history textbooks would go a long way towards eliminating attempts at rewriting history and perpetuating stereotypes between neighbouring countries in the region and between ethnic communities. The Council of Europe together with the OSCE High Commission for National Minorities have already supported many initiatives in this respect. These are areas where the EU should increase its financial support, until such time as the individual governments in the region incorporate these initiatives as an integral and permanent part of government policy.

Learning from previous reconciliation exercises.

There are no two post conflict peace processes or transition from dictatorships to a democratic society based on the rule of law that are the same. But there are certain principles and elements that can inspire current or future efforts at reconciliation in post conflict societies. For example, all the parties involved in the Northern Ireland conflict traveled to South Africa in 1997 to see what lessons from the South African transition from the apartheid regime to democracy could be useful for the efforts towards peace in Northern Ireland. The main negotiators of the new South African constitution also traveled up to Northern Ireland. This interaction between both processes, while not decisive was nevertheless a significant  contributing factor in the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

One element which is common to all  is the leadership involved in making reconciliation happen. Invariably the success achieved in post conflict peace and reconciliation efforts is due in large measure to the personalities which drive the process. In the case of South Africa, it was the courage and leadership of both Archbishop Desmond Tutu who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Nelson Mandela which ensured that the process gained the widest possible acceptance.

For the European Union, it was French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman and the other founding fathers of the european integration process that led the way forward towards reconciliation in Europe. Throughout the history of the european integration process that followed, we have seen courageous gestures from leaders who understood the critical importance of leading by example and stretching out a hand to former enemies. They include  Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling at the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1970, President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl joining hands at the commemoration ceremonies for the battle of Verdun in 1984, the election of Simone Veil, a former prisoner of war, elected as President of the first directly elected European Parliament in 1989, Queen Elizabeth visiting the monument to the leaders of the 1916 Rising in Dublin during her first official visit to Ireland in 2011, and subsequently shaking hands with the former leader of the IRA Martin McGuinness during her visit to Northern Ireland in 2012.

These are all powerful symbols which underline the patience and perseverance required in achieving reconciliation. They show that reconciliation is not an event but a process, one which requires courage and leadership.

This is the challenge facing the Western Balkans. To be successful it  will require a complete change of mindset, one where prejudice is replaced tolerance and respect, and the winner takes all mentality replaced by compromise and consensus building. Only then will society achieve that ‘community of values’ that will guarantee lasting peace and stability.


Ambassador Erwan Fouéré is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). Prior to joining CEPS in 2013, he was Special Representative for the Thransdniestrian settlement process during the Irish 2012 Chairmanship of the OSCE. During his 38 year career with the European institutions, he was the first to assume joint responsibilities of EU Special Representative and Head of Delegation in the EU External Service when he was appointed in this double capacity in North Macedonia ( 2005-2011 ), the first Head of Delegation in South Africa ( 1994-1998 ) and the first Head of Delegation in Mexico and Cuba ( 1989-1992 ). He was awarded the Order of Good Hope, Grand Officer, by President Nelson Mandela in 1998.


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