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INFO::: Transitional Justice > Genocide > The trial and the wall

The trial and the wall

Goran Fejic

6 November 2009

The celebration of Europe's "velvet revolutions" is an appropriate time to recall that what happened in Srebrenica is also part of Europe's post-1989 history, says Goran Fejic.


When they arrested Radovan K he knew that the times had changed. They did not arrest him because of the charges brought against him by a remote international tribunal. Those charges had been there for years, collecting dust. And those who decided that he should be arrested despised that tribunal as much as he himself did. But, the country that had sheltered him for so many years, the country that had allowed him to walk freely through its capital city, disguised as a picturesque witch-doctor and to ridicule international prosecutors, suddenly decided that it had other, more pressing priorities, such as joining the European Union. These new priorities happened to be incompatible with the hospitality accorded to RK. Being arrested because of changing times is something he probably felt as a major insult, judging by the sad "offended dignitary" mask he displayed to the judges in The Hague. It is a good sign that times are changing in Serbia.

But, times have not changed in Srebrenica, quite the opposite. Time had stopped running there fifteen years ago and remained frozen since. The "international community" tried to repair the clock: it financed expensive forensic investigations; set up sophisticated laboratories to track and compare tiny samples of DNA, to attribute fragments of bones, reconstitute bodies and allow families to bury their loved ones. It was a costly investment; it did help, but not enough. For the widows and orphans of Srebrenica, the page has not been turned as yet. The trial could help to do so: an effective and transparent trial of RK, followed by an equally effective trial of his macabre executor RM, both brought to their logical conclusions in the form of unambiguous convictions. That, perhaps, could help to turn the page and reset the clock in Bosnia.

This is the least one can hope for. But, the Hague trial(s) could do more than that. While we celebrate - and rightfully so - the tumbling of the Berlin wall and while Europe seems to be waking up again after a period of doubts about itself and its role in the world, it may be sobering and wise to remember that Srebrenica too is part of Europe's history after the fall of the wall. On the surface, the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia seemed to be an exception, an ugly, confusing and absurd stain on the bright horizon of reunited Europe. The Balkan wars were spoiling the happy re-encounter of democracy and capitalism. Europe was shocked but unprepared to respond.

Then, as the fires were gradually extinguished and the new borders set, the propensity of Europe to draw lessons from the Balkans tragedy faded away. The new democratic consensus made the fundamental debate of ideas almost obsolete and the analysis of conflict focused on the "deep-rooted and immutable" issues of cultural and ethnic identity. In a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy, ethnicity and identity indeed started being looked at as hard facts in politics rather than fictional categories. The shift was reinforced by the economic crisis, raising unemployment and social marginalisation of ever larger groups of people - the existential uncertainty of impoverished and disempowered consumers who once used to be citizens. They sought refuge and shelter in identity.

The temptation to resort to identity-politics remains latent in Bosnia, the former/late Yugoslavia and beyond. It takes different forms, from the harassment of Roma communities in parts of the "new Europe" to the "criminalisation" of illegal immigrants in "old Europe" (and their occasional forceful repatriation to war-zones such as Afghanistan). Europe still radiates the image of a land of peace, relative prosperity and tolerance. But strange monsters resurface from its past and stain that image. Rather that an exception to an otherwise merry-go-happy European journey towards continent-wide democracy, Srebrenica and the current trials at The Hague should be seen as a warning against complacency, an incitement to think about the broader and longer term effects of political manipulation of identity. Rewinding the nationalistic script and the sequence of events that led to Srebrenica should help understand these linkages; the trials at The Hague could provide valuable food for thought. The Balkans are never far away.


Goran Fejic is senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)



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