Victims Groups Call for Compensation and Arrest of War Criminals

On the opening day of a three-day conference on International Models of Transitional Justice organized by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) in Sarajevo on Thursday, participants discussed different approaches to providing justice for victims of conflict, genocide and human rights violations, from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.Experts and victims’ representatives from around the world and participants from the former Yugoslavia grappled with issues that are central to the discussion of transitional justice, including issues such as peace versus justice – when arrests and trials can destabilize a fragile peace; the frequent impossibility of prosecuting all criminals in cases of mass violations of human rights; the cost of trials and the length of time it takes for prosecutions; reparations to victims; the responsibility of governments and the role of the international community; truth commissions; and the effectiveness of mechanisms of transitional justice in preventing future crimes against humanity.

Although the models of transitional justice, and the crimes that gave rise to them, outlined in the day’s sessions were different, several common themes emerged. It was clear that in every continent addressing injustices of the past, by a variety of means, was crucial for the future of a society. “Yes, we have to work on reconciliation,” noted Srebrenica Mothers association representative Hatidza Mehmedovic, “But without truth and justice first, we have no future.”

In the former Yugoslavia, one of the major outstanding justice issues is the fact that several prominent indicted war criminals have not yet been arrested. Although Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, accused of being authors of the killings in Srebrenica in 1995 are still at large, today’s call for justice came on the day that Croatian war crimes indictee Ante Gotovina was detained in Spain.

Another prominent theme at the conference was the role of victims’ groups – associations of family members of the missing and survivors’ networks – in promoting transitional justice. In Latin America, groups of mothers of persons who had been forcibly “disappeared” by military governments organized demonstrations and protests that eventually led to the prosecution of many of those responsible. “When families of the disappeared first gathered 25 years ago, they met under the motto ‘there is no useless pain.’ Their efforts made that motto a reality,” said Patricio Rice of the Latin American Federation of Associations for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared.

Belarus, in central Europe, had had a large number of forcibly disappeared persons, explained Irina Krasovskaya of the We Remember Foundation in Belarus. But whether in the form of demonstrations, hunger strikes or other forms of advocacy, she said, “Solidarity is what makes us most powerful in the face of disappearances.” She noted that networks within Belarus and internationally had become an important force.

Asta Zinbo, ICMP’s Director of Civil Society Initiatives, also stressed the role of victims’ groups. “Many families and victims’ groups have felt they have not been fully informed or that they are not being heard,” she said, explaining that one of ICMP’s goals is to create better links between victims’ and other civil society groups and policy makers. Many victims’ groups shared common problems, she said, and one of the functions of the conference was “to compare experiences in order to correct and improve efforts to address the issues.”

Many speakers touched on the responsibility of governments in addressing transitional justice issues. In opening the Conference, Chairman of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency, Ivo Miro Jovic, acknowledged that although enough had not yet been done, there had been progress recently. He pointed to the recent enactment of the Law on Missing Persons, and said “Government commitment to these issues is also shown by the establishment of the Missing Persons Institute, which is unique and which takes a lead in the world.”

Another frequent theme in today’s discussions was the need for reparations or benefits for victims. It was a common experience that reparations for victims were rare and usually inadequate. Echoing several Bosnian victims’ groups who complained about lack of benefits, participants from Iraq noted that many people were unhappy about the treatment by authorities of persons indicted for crimes, noting that Saddam Hussein appeared to be getting better treatment at the hands of the authorities than many of his victims.

Participants at the conference tomorrow will discuss the transitional justice experience in Sri Lanka and current steps towards justice in the former Yugoslavia. On Saturday, the final day of the conference, timed to coincide with International Human Rights Day, participants will look at lessons learned from various regions, opportunities for cooperation and recommendations for the future.