All elements of transitional justice must be included

Article posted on December 9, 2005

There must be a combination of approaches to providing the justice that is essential for societies in transition from periods of conflict, violence or human rights abuses, agreed participants at a conference on International Models of Transitional Justice organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) today in Sarajevo. The second day of the three-day conference focused on key elements of transitional justice - criminal justice, truth seeking, reparation and institutional reform - and the application of these justice mechanisms in the former Yugoslavia.

“Criminal justice has not to date fulfilled all the requisite needs of societies in transitions,” said ICMP Government Relations Director Jeffrey Buenger at the conference. “Victims have a right to know the truth, a right to justice and right to reparations.”

Criminal justice in the form of prosecutions of indicted war criminals was an important part of the overall process, agreed conference participants, but it must be accompanied by other forms of transitional justice. Because of the large number of war crimes cases, judicial institutions at all levels, from international tribunals to State and local courts must be involved in prosecuting them, experts said. Other problems highlighted in the criminal justice system, especially in cases in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), were the capacity of local courts, the length of time it took to arrest and prosecute indicted war criminals and the lack of witness protection. Many participants pointed to the fact that these problems often deprived victims of justice.

“Criminal justice is a pre-requisite for the rehabilitation of a society that operates on respecting the human rights of all individuals,” said Beriz Belkic, member of the BiH Parliament and the only politician present at the conference. He noted that an important obstacle to progress is distrust among ethnic groups where persons accused of war crimes were often perceived as war heroes by members of their own ethnic groups.

Non-judicial truth seeking mechanisms, or truth commissions, have been successful in some transitional societies and the idea of such commissions was generally accepted by conference participants. “Truth-seeking is also liberty-seeking,” said Mirsad Tokaca of the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, “The worst thing is to be a hostage of our own tragedy, because then we cannot see the tragedy suffered by those around us. We have to be able to see beyond all the myths.” All participants agreed that it was essential in any truth-seeking process to include all levels of society, especially non-governmental organizations and victims’ groups.Some participants said that although in many cases establishing the truth was more important to them than financial reparations, they all agreed on the need to enable victims to access their rights. The State must fulfill their responsibility for addressing social and economic rights of victims, many of whom were in desperate circumstances, in order to restore their dignity.

The International Models of Transitional Justice Conference is part of a series of events in ICMP’s Paths to Transitional Justice project, which is supported by the Swiss Embassy in BiH.