Good news: Yugoslavia's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission

PressInfo # 139

 December 11, 2001 


By Jan Oberg, TFF director



At least three recent pieces of good news from the Balkans have passed virtually unnoticed:

- Yugoslavia has established a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.

- Dr. Ibrahim Rugova's and LDK's election victory opens new prospects for reconciliation in Kosovo/a.

- Non-violence has proved to be stronger than police repression and authoritarian rule in Serbia and stronger than extremist violence by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA/UCK) in Kosovo.

Contrary to violence and war, non-violence and opportunities for reconciliation don't make it to the headlines. As a matter of fact, they don't make it to the media at all. Destructive news furthers pessimism and the feeling of powerlessness. Constructive or good news furthers the opposite and signals that peace may, in spite of all, be possible. In short, those in power, as well as power-loyal media, naturally prefer the former rather than the latter.

These three news items contain important evidence that should begin a debate about the lessons to be learned by the international community regarding its conflict-management in the Balkans since 1991. Regrettably, such a debate - broad-based, democratic and multi-ethnic - does not yet exist.

TFF PressInfo 139, 140 and 141 will deal with each of these news items. PressInfo 142 will address why reconciliation inside Kosovo is absolutely essential for the future.


A few words about reconciliation and forgiveness

Every hope for peace in the Balkans, as well as in every other war-torn region, rests on the willingness of the local parties to eventually reach out and deal openly with what happened and why. Reconciliation is not about forgetting. It is about learning to live with the facts, the memory and the pain. It takes two or more people and it can be achieved neither by loans and credits, reconstruction of houses, nor by people in uniform or promises about future integration in international organisations.

Reconstruction of souls is 'soft.' It takes much longer time than other types of post-war reconstruction. We have no international 'armies' or pools of experts and specialised humanitarian workers on stand-by anywhere.

The other human dimension of post-war healing is forgiveness. It's basically a unilateral initiative. I decide to forgive someone who has killed my loved ones or hurt me because I consciously want to free myself from the all-absorbing hate; I abstain from the 'right' or wish to retaliate or get revenge . I thereby signal that I say 'no' to these options in order to invite others to do the same. We can choose to forgive for the sake of our own healthy living in the future or because we recognise that is what will help future generations to live together with tolerance and respect.

These processes are deeply individual and touch our very humanity. But they are also central political processes. They can be promoted by governments, party leaders, people of arts and letters, columnists, and NGOs - or they can be ignored or considered only private matters. Governments that conduct war and believe in 'Realpolitik' seldom display the slightest understanding for or interest in these issues. Other non-governmental actors must get reconciliation and socio-psychological healing on top of the international community's agenda.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are also a major tool for us all to understand the dynamics of conflicts and violence, and thus learn how to reduce or avoid it in the future. In short, they are opportunities to learn lessons today and practise violence-preventive diplomacy tomorrow.

War crimes tribunals and other legal mechanisms have their role to play. But they must be clearly distinguished from the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Neither can they establish the collective historical truth, or truths, about complex protracted conflicts and wars.

The human dimensions of conflicts and violence remain the most important of all. The fact that human healing was swept under the rug in ex-Yugoslavia after 1945 was a major reason for the conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s, which lead to the wars of the 1990s.

Regrettably, the human dimensions are the least understood and debated. Generally conflict-management (and the debate about it) is dominated by military, geo-political, economic, legal and constitutional dimensions. People come last. This, too, may explain why the three news items dealt with below typically go unnoticed.


The Yugoslav Commission for Truth and Reconciliation

The commission has been established on the initiative of federal President Vojeslav Kostunica. It aims to encourage and organise research on:

a) basic causes of the political, economic, social and moral decline of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia;

b) wars and other conflicts on the soil of the former Yugoslavia that resulted in a large number of human victims, ethnic cleansing, refugees, camps, economic destruction and demolition, destroyed cultural sites, the occurrence of dictatorships, international isolation of the country and an ever-increasing crime rate in the society;

c) human rights abuses and breaches of international public, humanitarian and wartime laws.

The Commission is autonomous, its members independent and unpaid. According to the General Provisions for the Commission, it shall be open to public scrutiny and its work shall lead to "reconciliation within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, between the country and neighbouring peoples and states, and the international community." It deems dialogue with the international community, including the Hague Tribunal, "a pressing need and one of its major tasks." All according to the General Provisions for the Commission.

The Commission needs generous international funding with no strings attached as well as a positive response from Yugoslavia's neighbours. It also needs domestic support; at the moment it is met with quite some resistance from three groups: a) those who advocate complete submission to the Western demand for punishment of the loser, b) those who prefer legal processes rather than socio-psychological healing and, finally, c) those who have a nationalist and/or pro-Milosevic line and are opposed to all investigations of atrocities committed by Serbs.

Given the current political climate it would have been surprising if this Commission had not already become another card in various power struggles and personal conflicts. However, it seems to me that those opposing this Commission may not have understood what essentially characterises reconciliation and truth commissions and how they differ from legal processes. They may also overlook how potentially path-breaking constructive consequences it could have if successful. Or perhaps they simply use the Commission as a pawn in some other game.

To overcome this inner resistance, the international community should express its firm support for President Kostunica's bold initiative. After all, it has generally considered Serbia/Yugoslavia and former President Milosevic the main perpetrator of crimes and the main cause of the conflicts and the war. What more appropriate policy now than to support the search for truth and reconciliation precisely because it comes from this new leadership? We are still waiting for equally bold initiatives from other Balkan leaderships and other conflict regions.

One would not like to believe that the international community, the EU, and the United States in particular, would be lukewarm or even oppose such a historical healing initiative , even though it may also reveal some less positive aspects of EU and US policies in the process. It goes without saying that Yugoslavia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission deserves both international political and moral support, as well as adequate funds with no strings attached.


December 11, 2001


 © TFF 2001



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