Events

Hijacked Justice: Dealing With the Past in the Balkans

June 10, 2009 // 12:00pm1:00pm

The highly publicized arrest of indicted Bosnian war criminal, Radovan Karadzic, last year in Serbia was seen by many as a triumph of soft power. It was seen as proof that linking Serbia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to progress toward EU accession was the only way in which Serbia's leaders would be compelled to participate in transitional justice initiatives. Yet, despite Karadzic's transfer to The Hague and recent evidence of the government's finding other indictees, Jelena Subotic argues that transitional justice initiatives taken in Serbia have been largely a sham and have been hijacked by politics.

Following the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and related atrocities committed throughout the region, the international community worked to bring the perpetrators of those crimes to justice. The installation of special courts, predominantly outside of the country where the human rights violations occurred, has become the norm in addressing severe human rights violations. These courts, it is hoped, enjoy high legitimacy, since they are administered by impartial actors according to universally applicable international laws.

However, these efforts do not take into consideration the various ways in which justice can be hijacked by leaders in order to gain political support. Demand for justice in Serbian society, Subotic argued, has been low, as many people either not concerned with or do not know about atrocities committed by Serbs. The character of these crimes, which were committed against non-Serbs in wartime, contributed to social apathy. In this environment, strong international pressure led political leaders to co-opt the transitional justice initiatives and feign the defense of international human rights norms, without actually bringing justice to those who are blameworthy or making progress in changing the perceptions of those crimes in society. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's cooperation with the ICTY and the creation of a national truth commission were only for show, Subotic argued, and very little has changed in the perceptions of Serbians or their leaders regarding the crimes committed during the war.

The search for justice after such traumatic events is essential to a country's well-being, Subotic said, but in the Balkans this search has failed. For a rule of law-based democracy to work, it is important for the country's leaders and citizens to be able to distinguish right from wrong. Subotic argues that the international community could improve its track-record on transitional justice initiatives, first by taking a maximalist interpretation of human rights and by applying more comprehensive transitional justice policies, which diminish the availability of loopholes which would allow these initiatives to be hijacked by politicians. Consistent international pressure and supportive programs would be necessary especially on comprehensive education reform and media professionalization.

Martin Sletzinger, Director, East European Studies, 202-691-4000

 
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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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