Photo courtesy of the Humanitarian Law Center.
Humanitarian Law Center
A pervasive public silence surrounds the issues of war crimes committed during the brutal wars of Yugoslav secession. Human rights activists are determined to shatter that silence. “We have to ask our parents and our neighbors, ‘What were you doing 20 years ago? Do you have regrets?’” said Katarina Janković, a volunteer turned staff member at the Humanitarian Law Center.
Founded in Belgrade in 1992, the Humanitarian Law Center is an organization that documents the extensive cross-border human rights violations perpetrated throughout the former Yugoslavia. It has been at the forefront of an initiative to create a regional commission for the identification and public disclosure of facts about the war crimes (RECOM).
The RECOM initiative is made up of an impressive coalition of 1,900 members across the region. Members include nongovernmental organizations, associations of victims and victims’ family members, veterans groups, media outlets, religious and political organizations, as well as artists, writers, and other individuals.
Following an intensive five-year process that included 127 consultations, seven regional forums, and the participation of more than 10,000 individuals, the Assembly of RECOM Coalition adopted a draft statute in March 2011. This statute describes the creation of an independent, intergovernmental body tasked with creating a registry of all victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia during 1991–2001, and establishing forums for public testimonies of the victims.
The initiative is the first in the world to attempt a truth-telling commission across an entire region, and it is the first time the process has been meticulously documented. While the highest representatives of the government and the political elite in all post-Yugoslav countries have declared their support for the initiative, the challenge now is to convince the governments to actually adopt the statute. The government of Montenegro was the first to begin the process in June 2011.
Janković acknowledged that convincing all governments of the region to institutionalize the Commission won’t be easy. But she is convinced that the initiative will continue. “Five years ago, it was almost impossible to have victims from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo at the same table. Now, after five years of working together, they don’t care anymore about their nationality. They care about the truth. They want their voices to be heard,” said Janković. “It’s an enormous task, but we will find a way to make it happen.”
Shortly after the draft statue was adopted, The Coalition launched a signature-gathering campaign across the region to demonstrate civic participation and support for the project. Coordinated by youth organizations in Croatia and Serbia, the campaign collected half a million signatures in just over two months. They will continue to collect signatures until all the governments sign on to the Draft Statute.
Youth organizers like Janković have proven to be some of the most dedicated activists in the RECOM coalition: “It’s not that we are responsible for what happened in the ‘90s, but we feel a strong obligation to acknowledge what happened. Not to forget, but to forgive,” Janović said. “We must force the whole society to look in the mirror. And we must make a historical and public memory of the past so it can never happen again.”
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