The burden of the past feeds the new nationalist waves

With the imprints of the past on the picture of the future, it is possible to come out by determining the roots of the conflict and criminal responsibility, while providing justice for victims, which is still lacking and which feeds new nationalist waves in the region, as assessed at the two-day online workshop “Transitional Justice through Montenegrin and Regional Experience”organized by the Centre for Civic Education (CCE) for law students and young professionals in the judiciary on 18 and 19 November 2020.

Milos Vukanovic, the CCE advisor, introduced the participants to the importance of the process of dealing with the past, as well as the significance of organizing educational programmes to strengthen Montenegro’s human resources for the implementation of all elements of the transitional justice process.

Prof. Dr. Zarko Puhovski, a civil activist and political analyst from Croatia, stressed the importance of critical analysis of the reasons that led to the war, as well as understanding that the nationalist interpretation of patriotism, which is rooted more in feelings than in rationality, was a key moment that made the war acceptable. “There is no relief from the burden of war without shedding light on the conditions that led to the war, not only those from history but also the answer to the question of how a large number of people could accept war as their option,” Puhovski said. “With the imprints of the past in the picture of the future, it is possible to come out by trying to get to the root of the conflict. This has not been done, and often lie does not appear instead of truth, but something much worse – complete emptiness,” he noted. Puhovski also referred to non-governmental organizations that are focused on establishing the facts about the war. “Thanks to the work, first of all, of the Coalition for RECOM, we know that in the area of ​​the former Yugoslavia, from 1991 to 2001, about 139,000 people were killed. When you say “about 139,000” then you come to the state of substantial inhumanity. This is when dead people become statistical facts. Hence, the Coalition for RECOM is trying to find not only the number but also the names and surnames of each man who was killed in the war, along with the details of that death “, stated Puhovski.

Puhovski also emphasized the ethical approach to achieve the right to truth, justice, reparation, as well as conflict prevention. “Pragmatically speaking, there is no doubt that war can happen again. But one has to ask: is this the worst thing that can happen to us? We in Croatia live in such a way that we are closer to the war 90s than we were 10 years ago. War is more present in public discourse, anniversaries are constantly and repeatedly discussed because we have about 200 days to mark some crime against us or some of our victory. And that means not allowing things to calm down,” Puhovski considers.

Rada Pejić-Sremac, coordinator of the Programme for the Mechanism for Informing Conflict-Affected Communities (PMI), gave a detailed overview of the work of the Hague Tribunal and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Courts in The Hague. “The Hague tribunal has been unfairly given a big role because it is the court that should decide on the individual criminal responsibility of those who are accused, and it has been used many times for political purposes in all countries of the former Yugoslavia. To move forward, we must get rid of that political context and rationally assess the legacy of the Tribunal,” she said.

The legacy of the Tribunal is not perfect, there are mistakes that need to be pointed out. However, its valuable contribution to establishing the facts of crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia is undoubted. Also, the time has come to stop interpreting the legacy of the Hague Tribunal through political filters, to honestly turn around and see what we can draw from that legacy, how to use it to face the past, overcome that conflict and move on,” assessed Pejic-Sremac.

When asked about the quality of regional relations and how to resolve issues from the past, she said that there are frozen conflicts on many levels in the former Yugoslavia. “Unfortunately, a lot of retrograde movement is visible globally, and not only in the Balkans. It is a disappointing setback when it comes to the prosecution of war crimes – there is a growing glorification of war criminals and the presence of rhetoric in the 90s. We are witnesses that our ignorance and inability to face the past has been used many times in the political context, and that is an obstacle to coexistence and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia,” concluded Pejić Sremac.

During the second day, the central part was the panel “Montenegro and Transitional Justice“, where Dr. Nebojsa Vucinic, professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Montenegro, Lidija Vukcevic, State prosecutor in the Special State Prosecutor’s Office and Goran Rodic, lawyer, had presentations.

Prof. Dr. Nebojsa Vucinic assessed that the Montenegrin legal framework enables the prosecution of all war crimes against humanity in the context of the Yugoslav conflicts, but he questioned the capacity of the judiciary. “Unfortunately, our authorities have not proven themselves in the application of these standards. Despite many seminars and other trainings, we do not have a sufficient degree of implementation  of international law at the domestic level. The judiciary is ready for reforms and positive changes, for young people who have the knowledge, who know court practice and foreign languages,” he said. “The fact is that war crimes never become obsolete, but also that over time it becomes increasingly difficult to prove some things. That is why the prosecution of criminal acts must be carried out on time, and there was no political will in the region for that, but criminals, on the one hand, were celebrated as heroes on the other, so the Hague Tribunal was formed. You can’t even expect the political option that led the conflicts to judge those who implemented those decisions,” assessed Vucinic. He also emphasized the importance of using the materials and practice of the Hague Tribunal. “Our judges must read the verdicts of the Hague tribunal when such cases occur. It is necessary to have specific knowledge and application of these standards in our national legislation “, Vučinić was clear.

Prosecutor Lidija Vukčević explained in detail the course of proceedings in war crimes cases before the Montenegrin authorities. “The prosecution filed indictments in seven cases, which were confirmed by the court, and in which 11 people were convicted of crimes against civilians, and 26 people were acquitted for indictment linked war crimes. Statistics show that we cannot boast of convictions when it comes to war crimes, but we should know that, within the reasons, are the problems that exist in court proceedings in neighboring countries, as well as legal dilemmas in the application of international law, evaluation of evidence, lack of experience in these initial stages, etc., ”she reported. Vukcevic emphasized the importance of international cooperation in the efficient processing of such cases. “In the period when the war and crimes took place, the cooperation between the states did not work and that changed many years later with the conclusion of the agreements. I agree that there was no political will, war crimes are connected with politics, but I do not think that the Prosecutor’s Office in the courts fulfilled political priorities,” she emphasized and pointed out the complexity of the war crimes.

Lawyer Goran Rodic shared his experience of defense in war crimes cases in Montenegro, but also at the Hague Tribunal.The wars in the former Yugoslavia were fought from 1991 to 1995, and for the first time in Montenegro, we learned about the launch of investigations sometime in October 2007. The accession negotiation process of Montenegro to the EU significantly influenced the issue of dealing with the past to be more open in the public. The trials that were opened in Montenegro were not accompanied by quality evidence that would justify indictments, and there were neglects of the rules of procedure in those cases, which were all confirmed by the verdicts,” he said about the chronology in Montenegro. He reminded that the outcome is in numerous acquittals. “There were a total of 30 accused persons in four cases, of which 26 acquittals and only four persons were found guilty, in the case of “Camp Morinj “. The costs of these proceedings and compensation for the damage to the illegally detained accused, etc., are enormous,” he pointed out.

Over 60 participants took part in the workshop continuously on both days and had numerous questions for lecturers and panelists. The workshop was organized as part of the project “Dealing with the Past for the Future” which the CCE is implementing with the financial support of the US Government, through the State Department Bureau for Combating International Drug Trafficking and Law Enforcement (INL).

Maja Marinović, Programme associate