Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan NGOs Want Independent War Crimes Commission

They hope collecting one million signatures throughout former Yugoslavia will force governments to take action.
By Aleksandar Roknić

Activists from across the Balkans campaigned this week for an independent commission to verify war crimes allegations and conduct an impartial probe into the wars of the 1990s.

Meeting in the national park of Fruska Gora, near Serbia’s city of Novi Sad, three non-governmental organisations, NGOs, from Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia pushed their vision of a regional commission for investigating atrocities.

Representatives from Bosnia’s Research and Documentation Centre, IDOK, Croatia’s Documenta, and the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund, HLC, are aiming to gather a million signatures over the course of the following year to put pressure on the governments of the former Yugoslav states to establish such a body.

If they manage to collect this number of signatures, the NGOs intend to approach each government to try to persuade them to agree to a regional commission. They would also like offices in each country to be set up to collect facts about war crimes and victims.

If the commission is to be established, each country must agree. Yet so far, none of the governments has supported this initiative.

During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, 1991-5, and in Kosovo, 1998-2000, more than 120,000 people were killed – whole 17,158 are still missing.

Natasha Kandic, executive director of HLC, said NGOs want to force governments to take measures to uncover the truth regarding what went on during the conflicts and to establish accurate figures on the number of victims.

“The regional governments responded [to the conflicts by holding] national war crimes trials,” she said. This was the first stage of dealing with the aftermath of the conflict, but an accurate picture of the past has not yet been established, she added.

As an example, she cited continuing discussion surrounding the massacre at Srebrenica, during which Bosnian Serbs killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in July 1995.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has ruled that the slaughter was genocide. In Bosnia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia at the International Court of Justice, ICJ, judges found in their February 2007 judgement that Serbia was not directly responsible for genocide, yet ruled that it had failed to prevent the crime.

In spite of these findings, people in different countries in the Balkans continued to view this event through their own prisms, she said. Every society has its own truth about events in Srebrenica, she added.

Kandic explained that the commission is intended to uncover an objective view of history, so as to prevent distorted versions of events leading to new atrocities being committed in future.

She said its supporters did not wish to apportion blame, just to secure the facts, so that politicians could not exploit biased versions of events.

“We want facts and to prove what really happened [during the war] – we don’t want to establish who started the war and why,” she said.

This was the third meeting held by the NGOs, and a fourth one will take place in Kosovo’s capital of Pristina next week, as they seek to gather further support for their idea.

The initiative is already supported by more than one hundred other NGOs, and victims’ groups from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia and Kosovo.

Ljiljana Hellman of international NGO Impunity Watch said that a commission set up in the past – the Commission of Truth in the former Yugoslavia, SRJ – failed to help the reconciliation process.

Her organisation wants to see archives of police and security services opened. She added that Serbia “must convince its own citizens that it wasn’t involved in covering [up] the genocide”.

She accused Belgrade of reluctance to investigate allegations of mass graves on its territory. She added that the authorities had not done enough to ensure the public knew about war crimes trials taking place in neighbouring countries.

Journalists at the meeting said the media was also to blame for failing to talk about war crimes.

Niku Cobanu from Romanian-language Serbian newspaper Libertatea said all journalists needed to speak out about the crimes committed.

“This is a matter of…professional ethics,” concluded Cobanu.

Bosnian reporter Aleksandar Trifunovic said there was no reconciliation process in his homeland.

“The few media reports from war crimes trials are mostly trying to deny the crimes,” he said.

According to him, the media only talked about the crimes committed by the other side, and failed to question why atrocities took place.

“This means these crimes could be repeated,” he said.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.

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