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Calls for Bigger EU Role in Balkan Stability Efforts

Experts say EU support for Hague tribunal is not being followed up with sufficient backing for efforts to counter continued ethnic divisions.
By Simon Jennings
Balkan experts and non-governmental organisations have called for the European Union to play a greater role in fostering long-term peace and stability in the Western Balkans.


In an IWPR special report (EU Urged to Boost Balkan Reconciliation Efforts), observers say the EU strategy of conditioning the progress of ex-Yugoslav countries towards joining the union on their cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, has been a key tool in ensuring that perpetrators of war crimes committed during the Nineties Balkans wars face trial and victims see justice.


However, they say that EU support for the Hague tribunal – at which a total of 161 individuals suspected of war crimes have been charged and 60 convicted – is not being followed up with sufficient backing for regional war crimes trials and efforts to counter ethnic divisions still prevalent across the region.


“I don’t think that the EU has considered domestic prosecutions as a priority,” Dorothee Marotine, head of the International Centre for Transitional Justice’s Balkans programme, told IWPR.


“It is not putting enough emphasis on complementarity to the ICTY in Serbia,” she added, referring to the establishment of war crimes courts in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to take over the work of the Hague tribunal as it prepares to close in 2011.


Bogdan Ivanisevic, also of the ICTJ, has similar concerns. “There doesn’t seem to be a recognisable, actual EU policy on transitional justice other than ICTY conditionality and more recently, to some extent, on the issue of domestic war crimes prosecutions,” he said.


As regional war crimes courts take on the work of the Hague-based ICTY ahead of its closure, commentators are seeking additional support from the EU to improve the quality of investigations and increase the number of trials held in the Balkans.


“Investigation of war crimes [in the region] still need to be intensified,” said Vesna Terselic, head of the non-government organisation Documenta, which monitors war crimes trials in Croatia. “One would expect the investigations [which have taken place so far] to go deeper and touch more crimes.”


“For intensifying investigations and the continuation of prosecutions, political will is essential. The EU…should use its political power to make sure there is no doubt about political will.”


However, Pierre Mirel, the director for enlargement in the Western Balkans at the European Commission, EC, said his office is “pushing very strongly for [war] crimes prosecutions and trials”.


Mirel points out that the EU is providing financial backing to war crimes courts in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade as part of their journey towards membership of the bloc.


“These monies are used for preparing the countries for accession,” he said. “And that includes the large amount of funding for supporting judiciary reform including war crime trials.”


He acknowledges a number of shortfalls in justice procedures in the region, such as legislation which prevents the extradition of war crimes suspects to face trial.


To help combat the problems, the bloc is currently providing financial support for war crimes courts in Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade as well as discussing various obstacles at regular state-level meetings, he said.


“At these meetings, we don’t just focus on [the] ICTY. We look at the overall strategy and efforts made to investigate, prosecute the [suspected] war criminals, not just before the ICTY in The Hague but more widely,” said Mirel.


In the IWPR report, observers also call for the EU to look beyond justice mechanisms themselves and engage state leaders in the reconciliation process by promoting dialogue aimed at establishing a common understanding of the conflict and bridging ethnic divisions.


In Bosnia, experts point to a lack of strategies for developing social cohesion between ethnic groups. They say that some communities appear closer to conflict than at any time since the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.


“We are currently witnessing a situation in BiH [Bosnia] which is getting more radical and going in a negative direction,” said Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska.


“Sometimes, many people have the feeling the country is closer to a new conflict than it is on the way to becoming ‘normal’ and closer to the EU.”


Divisions among young people in particular suggest an ominous future, especially in Bosnia, say observers.


“The younger generation in the region is growing up at least as divided – if not more so – [as] their parents and with less of an ability to understand the other side,” said Neil Kritz of the United States Institute of Peace.


“They are learning different versions of reality that happened only a few years ago. And that does not lead to reconciliation; that leads to future resentment and conflict.”


The EU says it is working to bring reconciliation to the Western Balkans through its engagement with Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia as part of the procedure known as the Stabilisation and Association process, which is aimed at bringing them closer to eventually joining the 27-member bloc.


“[Reconciliation] is part of the Stabilisation and Association process that was established in 2000 that includes [the] prosecution of war criminals, whether before the ICTY or locally, support [for the] return of refugees, good neighbourly relations, [and] regional cooperation. All these elements...should lead to reconciliation,” Mirel told IWPR.


The EC adds that it attempts to help societies reconcile from within as opposed to pushing changes from Brussels.


It focuses on cooperative strategies, it says, to bring different ethnic communities together – rather than concentrating on differences, it actively seeks to promote dialogue through areas of common interest infrastructure, such as tourism and transport.


The goal is “to try and promote a real reconciliation of people simply through their day-to-day cooperation”, David Hudson at the EC delegation in Croatia told IWPR.


However, observers in the IWPR report said some Balkans politicians, many of whom are reluctant to face up to the past, are blocking the path to reconciliation.


A number of those suspected of involvement in abuses in the Nineties wars remain in office today, which creates a sense of mistrust in public institutions, and obstructs reforms demanded by the EU, they say.


In Bosnia, the process of weeding out from public office anyone implicated in atrocities of the past is "absolutely crucial" to enable the necessary reform of the security sector that would bring the country closer to EU standards, said Iavor Rangelov, of the Centre for Global Governance at the London School of Economics.


"The issue of vetting is not resolved in Bosnia and there is a role for the EU to raise that issue in the context of the broader enlargement framework," he said.


“The EU is increasingly finding itself caught in a dynamic that they did not foresee, that the obstruction from within state structures and from the political elite that emerged out of the war is growing and is obstructing progress and stability in the region.”


Mirel said that such obstruction and division at state level is “a concern”.


“We would wish the state actors to take that more seriously and go more quickly,” he said. “But at the same time, prosecutors are doing quite a good job, although slowly... It’s not an easy job for them either. What is regrettable really is when you have some political parties openly criticising judicial decisions, that’s really detrimental to the [reform] process.”


Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


Please see: Full version of IWPR’s Special Report: EU Urged to Boost Balkan Reconciliation Efforts, also available as pdf pdf

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