Bosnia's Lessons for Syria: War Criminals Cannot Be Part of the Solution

National and international NGOs – and national and international community – have totally failed in finding the solution for former Yugoslavia. One of the reasons is that after the war the international community made the devil's pact with well-known war criminals.

09 October 2017

On September 13-18, 2017, SyriaUntold attended a workshop on transitional journalism under the headline ‘Journalists’ Contribution in Restoring Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance in a Post-War Society’ in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The event was organized by International Media Support (IMS) and the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Journalist Association (BH Novinari), featuring Syrian, Bosnian and Iraqi journalists.

Dr. Goran Šimić, a Professor of Criminal law and Transitional justice at the International University of Sarajevo, was one of the guest speakers at the workshop. SyriaUntold sat down with him to discuss justice and reconciliation in post-conflict societies, as well as similarities between Bosnia and Syria.

SyriaUntold: During the lecture you delivered in Sarajevo you appeared to be pessimistic for what concerns the future of Bosnia, since you predicted that the war is going to come back, while you seemed optimistic on other aspects, as you said that if you were that pessimistic you wouldn't be in Bosnia. Tell us a bit more about your feelings and what drove you to remain in Sarajevo. What do you aim to achieve?

Goran Šimić: I don’t consider myself to be a pessimist or an optimist. I would rather say that I'm a realist which I think is essential for post-conflict societies like Bosnia and Herzegovina. We need to assess realistically the roots and causes of the conflicts and how to solve them. On the contrary, to live in lies, dreams and illusions will never be the optimum way for solutions.

The fact that you stayed in Sarajevo prompts us to raise some questions on the role of intellectuals and academics: Do you believe in this role and its capability to trigger change? On the basis of your experience and that of your colleagues, how do you assess your role?

Well, I think that the role of intellectuals and academics in one society, and particularly in post-conflict societies is huge and supposed to be huge. Intellectuals and academics are the cream of society, and thus supposed to guide it in the resolution of its problems.

Unfortunately, in Bosnia-Herzegovina it is not, because most academics and intellectuals are actually part of the problem, as during the war they lost what distinguish them, that is their independence, objectivity and the capacity to be in a position to speak freely and contribute to solutions. In post-conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina most academics and intellectuals were co-opted by the ruling class, which was actually at the core of the problem.

In connection with intellectuals and academics, another significant challenge to consider in post-conflict societies is education. It is essential to foster education that will shape new peace builders, or better to say, ‘peace fighters.’ Otherwise you can end up where Bosnia-Herzegovina is today, raising the new haters instead of the new leaders and ‘peace fighters’.

Going back to the war, why do you think it is going to erupt again in Bosnia? Is there a way to avoid this conflict?

In Bosnia Herzegovina the war didn’t end because we wanted to stop it, or because we solved the problem; we stopped killing and raping each other because we were prevented from continuing with that. So our problem persisted even after the peace agreement. In that sense maybe it would be much fairer to say that our “peace agreement” is rather a classic ceasefire where only the armed conflict was frozen in time, while the war continued and is waged today with different means instead of shooting and shelling. We are using books, movies, education, and religious organizations.

Are you following what's happening in Syria nowadays? Do you notice any similarities with what your country went through?

Unfortunately, I’ve been able to follow less than I would want to. One of the reasons is the lack of quality and objective information. So whatever I see in the media I'm taking it with a bit of hesitation. But yes, I do see similarities with what we what we see, or what we saw, in Bosnia and former Yugoslavia. These are problems that have been simmering for a long period of time, because obviously that kind of conflict escalation does not erupt all of a sudden. Also, we can track the mass atrocities and crimes that are standing unsolved, and they are very unlikely to be solved in the future.

Another similarity with Bosnia is the tremendous displacement of millions of people who are forced to move from their homes.

So in this sense Syria or Bosnia, both qualifiable as “new wars” in sociology, show a similar scenario where ideology is just a cover for fighting for territories, money, political influence, etc. In this context, the international community is obviously unwilling or incapable of preventing or solving such problems and the local communities don't want to solve them because they wish to finally settle the score for centuries-old disputes.

[Photo: The UNIS twin towers burn along 'Sniper Alley' in downtown Sarajevo as heavy shelling and fighting raged in the Bosnian capital on June 08, 1992. Nicknamed 'Momo' and 'Uzeir' after a popular ethnic Bosniak and Serb comedy duo, the structures were heavily damaged during the siege of Sarajevo but remained standing to became a symbol of the city's resilience. (AFP/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].
Were western media portraying the Yugoslavian conflict as a mere sectarian one while ignoring its other dimensions as it happens today with Syria?

Western media was portraying, in my opinion wrongly, Bosnian conflict as sectarian. At that time, Samuel Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations was actual, so all that was fitting in the picture. However, war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as I think also in Syria, is not about religion or any “higher” cause, but about territory, resources and power – what was once described by Nazis as Lebensraum (living space). All the rest is just a cover for “ordinary” people so they can more easily ‘swallow’ that story.

And now, 25 years after the war, you can see that actually mass crimes were a very successful ‘enterprise’ because, at least in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the territories are ethnically cleansed from the ‘others.’ Instead of having the very fine multicolored carpet that we had before the war, we now have three very compact territories with the three dominant ethnic groups. This is quite telling of the aforementioned character of the war, not to mention the involvement of the neighboring countries in the conflict.

It is not about sects, ethnic groups or religion, it's about enabling coexistence and mutual understanding between different people and different ideas. I believe that this applies to Syria and other countries all around the world, including the Far East, and it’s a challenge for the future because we, as a civilization, didn't find the proper answers to these problems. Solutions are just temporary, waiting for the next cyclical eruption every 20, 30, or 50 years.

A large number of international NGO programs in Syria currently focus on political reconciliation. Was this the case even after the Yugoslavian conflict? If so, what is the lesson you've learned from reconciliation efforts?

Well I think that national and international NGOs – and national and international community – have totally failed in finding the solution for former Yugoslavia. One of the reasons is that after the war the international community made the devil's pact with well-known war criminals. There is one well known proverb saying that those who are part of the problem cannot be part of the solution. Unfortunately, if you take a look at Bosnia-Herzegovina you will see that the political parties who brought the country into the war are still leading it. Can you imagine what would have happened in Germany if the National Socialist Party won the ‘45 elections [after the war] and one of the Nazi leaders was elected as prime minister or president? So that's precisely what we have in Bosnia-Herzegovina today, and it seems to me that Syria is also heading in a similar direction. As a German physicist said once, for new ideas you need new people. To find the solution for post-conflict countries, we need totally fresh ideas and people who can lead peace-building and reconciliation.

On the contrary, in Bosnia-Herzegovina we are acting as if we are in Denmark or Norway living in our beautiful economical heaven, while millions of people have not received justice, whether they were direct victims of the war or not. Here there is a stupid political slogan that goes like ‘Don't look back. Just look at the bright future.’ What bright future is there for millions of Syrians and Bosnians and what can they expect from that future when their lives are destroyed, not only their houses or what they've built. The international community simply doesn’t grasp that, in post-conflict societies, it's not about the house or the cow or a piece of metal or whatever. People's lives are destroyed, so to rebuild a country and its society we need to invest in rebuilding the lives of its inhabitants. I am not talking about the well-off, it’s in the millions of so-called “ordinary” people that we can see the real devastation of wars.

On the other hand, NGOs, governments and the international community don't invest that much in rebuilding those lives, while they engage with the political leaders who finally decided to show some mercy and political will. However, none of them is interested in rebuilding the lives of the “ordinary” majority.

We all heard about the trials of Mladić and Karadžić, two of the most infamous war criminals who were responsible for the massacre of many Bosnians. What was the impact of these trials on Bosnian society? In Syria, with the international rehabilitation of the Asad regime, many war criminals might walk away unpunished. Is reconciliation ever possible without justice?

The war crimes trials in former Yugoslavia, and particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, rendered some justice to the victims and society. Unfortunately, if we could assess that on a scale of 0 to 100, I would put that somewhere between 10 and 20 percent.

Of course, the trials are needed and the international and domestic courts are a very suitable place to establish the facts, and not only to send someone to jail which is of secondary importance. It is the established facts that lay the foundations for establishing the truth, which is the actual base for rebuilding a country.

What we and the international community have to understand, in Syria as elsewhere, is that the courts are not meant to provide justice, but to establish individual criminal responsibility and to collect facts. That's all. The courts should not be expected to disburse pensions, rebuild houses or launch social, healthcare and psychological support programs for the victims. A very broad social movement is needed to address these problems and, in the end, it should be the state’s responsibility.

As for the rehabilitation of war criminals, it is wrong from a twofold perspective; firstly, it’s like you’re telling them, “What you did was right. Please don't do that in the future and you can continue with your life,” which is obviously wrong; secondly, we are telling the victims that what happened was just a coincidence, in which they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is also unacceptable because the majority of the people will never be able rebuild their lives this way.

We have to understand finally that there is no reconciliation without justice. But we also have to understand that justice is much broader than bringing twenty war criminals to court and sending them to jail. Even if we could bring all war criminals to court and send them to jail, justice wouldn't be done. Such an idealistic understanding of justice is not very useful, as victims and societies are in need of help everyday to regain their lives. That kind of justice needs to reshape itself to be much more human than its current understanding.

Is there any piece of advice you'd like to offer to Syrians so that they don't reiterate Bosnia's mistakes and they avoid conflict in the future?

If I could give one piece of advice to Syrians for the future that would be: Be honest with yourself. Be prepared to cry and to kneel in front of those who suffered because of you. On the contrary, if you lie to yourself saying that everything will be solved with optimism, you will end up where the former Yugoslavia is today; over the last 150 years, the longest period of peace lasted 46 years in our country, and the crimes are just coming back in cycles of 20, 30, 50 years. This is because we never solved the real problems of our conflicts.

[Main photo: Dr. Goran Šimić participates in a conference at The Norwegian Centre for Human Rights of the Faculty of Law of University of Oslo - 3-12-2016 (International University of Sarajevo/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].

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