In the aftermath of the great atrocities, restorative processes are still rarely strategically used to address the harm and to support people to regain a sense of safety, dignity and respect. Without such processes, the rhetoric of blame and victimisation perpetuate polarisation and shape collective memory of a perennial struggle — of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — and the verdicts of international criminal justice mechanisms in the mindset of ordinary people become just one more way ‘our boys’ are unjustly accused and incarcerated.
A four-year armed conflict in post-Yugoslav countries which occurred three decades ago has left the newly independent states with visible signs of destruction and with claims of injustice and grievances fuelled by inflammable rhetoric and by worsening living conditions for most of the population, especially for those in rural areas or belonging to minorities. Although the harm done has been documented thoroughly by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the victims have not received appropriate acknowledgement of their suffering and losses from the elected representatives of those in whose name the war crimes have been committed. Attempts to address victims’ grievances were rare and far between and, when the apologies were issued, they were half-hearted and did not clearly state the act, the perpetrator and the harm done.
Young activists stepped in and wrote a handbook for political leaders on how to apologise properly. Branka Vierda from The Youth Initiative for Human Rights explains why a handbook How to Apologise for Crimes was published in 2018 in order to help politicians apologise for crimes committed against Croatian Serb civilians during and after the Croatian Army’s Operation Storm at the beginning of August 1995:
Symbolic reparations such as apologies strongly contribute to reducing social segregation, mutual intolerance and hate in society by resolutely, clearly and unambiguously condemning perpetrators of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. With these symbolic gestures, the victims get back their dignity and hope that the brutality will not be repeated.
Twenty three years after the end of war, not one senior state official has sent a sincere apology to the victims of the crimes and grave violations of human rights that have been committed by members of Croatian institutions or units controlled by Croatia. The Youth Initiative for Human Rights called on Croatian President and Prime Minister to apologise for the crimes committed during and after the Storm military operation, assessing that the politicians’ stance on victims was deteriorating by the year.
The handbook highlights that an apology, as a symbolic gesture, should be publicly offered to victims in their presence at the place where the crimes took place, or one that has a strong symbolic significance, and should also include the recognition of specific crimes committed and acceptance of responsibility for them. It should also include a condemnation of the crimes and all activities that led to them. Youth Initiative for Human Rights also emphasised that in 2005, the UN General Assembly passed the Resolution 60/147, which recommends a public apology, ‘including acknowledgement of the facts and acceptance of responsibility’ by states for crimes committed by their forces.
The handbook also lists what it describes as good and bad examples of apologies given by statesmen in recent history, domestic and foreign ones.
2020 has provided numerous examples of grievances not heard and not acknowledged, and apologies not issued to the victims and to the survivors, and in this issue of the newsletter we brought some of them to the attention of our readers. The articles highlight some of the challenges in initiating and carrying on restorative processes when the harm transcends individual boundaries and interpersonal relationships. Speaking up to our political representatives and educating them on the importance of and on proper ways of addressing the harm done on our behalf is an important part of that process.