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

EXCHANGE: Bosnia Needs a Truth Commission

Leading proponents of a TRC argue that it will be an essential tool in building a lasting peace - and will complement, not compete, with the Hague tribunal.
By Jakob Finci

Josip Broz Tito's regime in the old socialist Yugoslavia portrayed World War Two as a heroic struggle against outside invaders. The deportations, massacres and atrocities committed by Yugoslavs against fellow Yugoslavs were covered up in the name of "brotherhood and unity".

Over four decades, these wounds festered beneath the surface, feeding competing myths among the country's ethnic communities. Nationalist extremists exploited this resentment and mutually exclusive versions of history sowed the seeds of fresh conflict in the 1990s. The peoples of former Yugoslavia paid a terrible price for the suppression of truth. It is a mistake that Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot afford to repeat.

To put an end to the cycle of retribution and chauvinism, Bosnia needs a truth and reconciliation commission that will examine how the conflict came about and forge a consensus about how to avoid such bloodshed and cruelty in the future.

In contrast to a trial's focus on the specific crimes of perpetrators, truth commissions are usually mandated to focus on the experience of victims. Their aim is to analyse not simply the facts of abuses suffered but the broader context underlying events. A truth commission examines the government, the security forces, and other elements in society that prepared the ground for violence.

A truth and reconciliation commission in Bosnia would shine a light on whole sectors of society that would never (and should not) be the focus of criminal prosecutions. The role of the media, the judiciary, academia or religious institutions in fuelling conflict could be examined.

In this way, the truth commission would help the people of Bosnia explore together what in their sociological and cultural climate allowed for the especially cruel and inhuman nature of the war. This knowledge can only be achieved by painful self-examination. As stated by Justice Richard Goldstone, the Hague tribunal's first prosecutor, "the tribunal can tell an important part of the story, but it is equally important that the people come to their own consensus about their recent history and acknowledge the abuses suffered by all victims."

As has been the case with other truth commissions, the Bosnian commission would recommend reforms designed to restructure society, address past abuses and prevent a repetition of war.

The testimony of victims will allow the truth commission to complement the judicial process. Court trials will, appropriately, only provide an opportunity for a few victims - well under 1 per cent of the total - to tell their story as it relates to charges against a particular defendant. The truth commission will provide an official forum for all victims and perpetrators to speak out and ensure that their experience and that of their relatives and friends is preserved as part of the publicly acknowledged history of the country.

Given the prominence of the recent South African experience, it should be noted that the truth commission for Bosnia would not provide for amnesty. As has been the case with most truth commissions, this will undoubtedly mean that the overwhelming majority of those coming forward to the commission would be victims - not perpetrators - further reinforcing this victim-oriented focus.

The drafters of the Bosnian peace accords recognised the need for such a multi-pronged approach and the architect of the settlement, former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, has endorsed the idea of a truth commission. Although the Dayton agreement confirms the obligations of all parties to cooperate with the Hague tribunal, a letter in an appendix to the agreement also commits them to establishing a concurrent commission of enquiry that would undertake many of the tasks envisaged for the proposed truth commission in Bosnia.

The members of the proposed commission, who would be nominated by the UN Secretary-General, would be individuals whose moral character, integrity and commitment to objectivity transcended all ethnic, religious and political lines. Commission members would be confirmed following a process of extensive public comment.

The proposed truth commission in Bosnia would introduce one innovation that has already earned the praise of members of truth commissions from several other countries. As part of its mandate to document the abuses suffered by all victims, it would attempt to document the stories of the real war heroes - those individuals resisted nationalist hysteria and acted to protect victims of other ethnic groups at great personal risk. If Bosnian society is really to restore itself, its citizens need to be informed not only of the crimes committed but also of the potential for generosity and tolerance that remained even in the midst of barbarity and insanity.

For too long in Bosnia and Herzegovina, owing in no small part to the legacy of communism, people have come to expect a "top-down" approach, in which the population passively permits their leadership to determine their fate. Yet perhaps regarding no other issue has the emergence of a dynamic civil society in Bosnia been more apparent than in the effort to establish the truth and reconciliation commission.

More than 100 non-governmental organisations, political, religious and civic leaders have signed a petition calling for the truth and reconciliation commission so far. In January 2000, an extraordinary conference in Sarajevo on the issue brought together a diverse group of 80 leaders from civil society. These individuals, from both the Federation and Republika Srpska, representing human rights groups, victims' associations, religious orders, political parties, academia, youth groups and others (several of which had not previously found common cause with one another), collectively represent thousands of people throughout the country. One after another explained why they believe that truth commission is vital to a durable peace.

This broad-based grassroots citizens' coalition has now established a National Coordinating Committee for Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A proposed law is being reviewed now by experts from the Hague tribunal and the Bosnian state parliament is expected to start debating the idea next month. If approved, it will mean that nationalist extremists will no longer control the writing of history and skew it to divide people.

When the truth commission was first suggested, some opponents of the idea - including tribunal officials - said such a commission might undermine the work of the tribunal.

Opponents of the commission originally feared that the proposal would be a distraction that would damage the tribunal's standing and drain money and resources away from criminal prosecutions. But the tribunal has built a more solid foundation in recent years, prosecuting prominent war crimes suspects and securing more international financial support. Its central role in pursuing criminal accountability for crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia is beyond doubt and NATO-led peacekeeping forces have proven more willing to arrest those indicted for war crimes.

Opponents have also expressed fear that nationalist leaders might undermine the independence of the truth commission and exploit it for their own purposes, perhaps as a counterweight to The Hague. But the organisers of the truth commission initiative have rejected such attempts and insisted that the commission serve a complementary role.

Misunderstanding about the proposed role of the commission has been rectified for the most part following a series of consultations over the past two years. A number of experts, including current and former tribunal staff and representatives from other countries' truth commissions, have been working together to draft appropriate guidelines for the relationship between this tribunal in The Hague and the proposed truth commission in Bosnia.

Finally, some suggested that the time is not ripe: that the truth commission should not be established until the tribunal concludes its work. This would postpone for at least another five years the start of a process that many believe is essential to the achievement of reconciliation in Bosnia. It would mean another five years during which three competing nationalistic versions of history would become further embedded in the collective psyches of the country's ethnic communities.

A boy who was ten years old at the start of the recent conflict has already reached the age of military service. With each passing year in which such children are raised on propagandistic accounts of recent history that demonise other communities and refuse to acknowledge common suffering, it becomes increasingly likely that these children will grow up to fight.

It is a common belief in and outside the Balkans that if NATO-led peacekeeping troops withdrew tomorrow, Bosnia and Herzegovina would likely descend anew into bloodshed and further division. In order to make the departure of these troops possible, it is imperative that Bosnia begin down the road represented by the truth commission. Delaying such a step would be both tactically mistaken and morally wrong.

If the work of the truth commission will be slow, and will extend well beyond the life of the commission itself. The wounds in Bosnian society will not be quickly healed. But an honest self-examination begun by the truth commission would help prevent these wounds from becoming reinfected and assist Bosnia to move towards a healthier future.

Jakob Finci, formerly executive director of the Open Society Fund in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is chairman of the National Coordinating Committee for Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Neil J. Kritz is director of the Rule of Law Programme at the United States Institute of Peace. (The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the institute or the US government.)