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Why Justice Requires More than a Verdict: Religion and Reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Date:15 December 2017
Author:Sanne Hupkes
Slobodan Praljak
Slobodan Praljak

In today’s post, Sanne Hupkes reflects on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's (ICTY) trial of Ratko Mladic. Sanne is a PhD student whose research focuses on the role of (power-sharing) democracy in peace operations. She is concerned with the place of (religious) collective identities within democracy in post-conflict societies. Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the sites of her research.

Last month Ratko Mladic was convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes he committed and that were committed under his command during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. Only a week later, another ICTY judgement became international news. During the public pronouncement of the judgement Slobodan Praljak, one of the accused, drank poison as a result of which he passed away that same day. Both judgements as well as the behavior of the accused in the courtroom, have been met with varied response in international news outlets.

In the case of the verdict against Mladic, many Bosniaks, who were the main victims of Mladic’s brutalities, say that no sentence would ever bring their loved ones back or set right the injustice done. President of Serbia Aleksander Vucic seemed to accept the verdict and the responsibility of the Serbs in the Bosnian war, but also emphasized the bias he thinks characterizes the Court prosecutions strategies and verdicts. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, the Serbian federal unit in Bosnia and Herzegovina, outright denied the responsibility of the Serbs and agitated against what he believes is an international campaign of slander against the Serbian people by calling Mladic a national hero.

Various commentators assert that the verdict against Mladic will have little impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina; that it does not really contribute to justice, or highlights the ethnic divisions still characterizing Bosnian society. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were pitted against each other during the war, and these group identities remain highly important in social and political life today. Religious identities and ethnic identities are closely intertwined and overlap to a very large extent: Bosniaks are Muslim, Serbs are Serbian Orthodox, and Croats are Catholic. Religion as well as religious leaders have played an important role in fostering the conflict and maintaining the differences between the groups in support of nationalist politics.

The diverging reactions to the ICTY verdicts, however, do not only highlight the continued importance of ethnic or religious differences. The verdict also highlights the different ways in which justice is understood. Justice is socially constructed and its meaning is entangled with collective identities, historical trajectories, and the contemporary conditions of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most obviously, Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats judge the justness of the verdict differently. But additionally, a difference can be discerned between the way in which the ICTY defines justice and the conception of justice that various actors in peacebuilding in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter: Bosnia) employ. This understanding of justice, that can be understood as an alternative to the understanding of justice as employed by the ICTY, is influenced by religious perspectives on justice and plays a role in the way peacebuilders assess and address contemporary problems in Bosnian social and political life. Faith-based or faith-inspired organizations find insight in the scriptures and teachings of Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy that they work with in creating inter-group dialogue and cooperation. Furthermore, this faith-inspired conception of justice may allow us to entangle and understand the diverging approaches to the verdict by the ICTY.

When injustice is everywhere

Although Mladic and others prosecuted by the ICTY may have behaved particularly ruthless during the war, other people committed killings and crimes as well.[1] These people, of which some say there must be as many as 30.000, have not been prosecuted in the wake of the war, nor is it likely that they ever will be. Efforts were made to prosecute a larger number of individuals in a national court with the establishment of the Special Department of War Crimes (SDWC), but in the light of the scale of the violence perpetuated during the war, even the 660 indictments of this court seems insufficient in some ways. This means that in Bosnia there are ‘thousands of war criminals, who were guardians in concentration camps, rapists, killers, who are in political positions and in other social positions all over Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (peace worker, Center for Peacebuilding, BiH).

That many people who committed crimes during the war are still living in freedom in Bosnia today, does not only make it easy for Bosnian politicians to invoke their poisonous, nationalist narratives. In a way it also enables the corruption that characterizes Bosnian politics at all levels. ‘If people would see that there is justice, then I don’t think that politicians would dare to be so corrupt’ (peace worker, Center for Peacebuilding, BiH). In other words, the message that is sent by the absence of large scale transitional justice practices is that crimes can be committed in Bosnia and that you can get away with it. Although hardly anyone advocates the prosecution of all these individuals, some have suggested that alternative justice-seeking mechanisms, such as truth commissions, might be able to better address this problem than current judicial procedures to (Faith in Development Lead, World Vision BiH).

What does justice look like?

The ICTY writes that by the successful prosecutions ‘[it] has now shown that those suspected of bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed can be called to account, as well as that guilt should be individualized, protecting entire communities from being labelled as “collectively responsible”’. This is in line with the judicial processes that are directed at prosecuting individuals, not groups, and that restricts its focus (among other things due to limited resources) to those who bore the most responsibility for the crimes committed. People working at NGOs (like for example World Vision Bosnia and Herzegovina or the Center for Peacebuilding) however, seem to have a different understanding of justice. They indicate that justice is more than assigning responsibility and guilt to the perpetrators. Rather, it is about accepting one’s own responsibility, regardless of whether the other will do this too or not. It is about accepting, as a community, that members of your community have also committed crimes.

Interestingly, the issue of justice and transitional justice is most clearly visible in the work of faith-based or faith-inspired organizations. Asked about the role of religion in her work, one person clearly explained this:

‘But one good thing where I see strength in faith communities, is that from religious perspectives, in all Abrahamic religions, is that if you believe in afterlife and when you go wherever we are going nobody is asking you what somebody else did to you. You will not be pardoned because somebody else provoked you. You will only answer for your sins.’ (Faith in Development Lead, World Vision BiH).

This perspective on the role of religion is particularly interesting in Bosnia, because nationalism and religion continue to be closely intertwined up to the point where people do not even distinguish between being Bosniak and being Muslim, Serb and Orthodox, Croat and Catholic. It also resonates with the more broadly expressed contention that justice is not about assigning guilt, but about accepting responsibility.

Faith-based or faith-inspired NGOs use this strength of religion in their work aimed at bringing (individuals belonging to) different groups closer together. They work with religious leaders and religion teachers to show them that when carefully reading sacred texts arguing for nationalism from a religious perspective becomes untenable. From a religious perspective, nationalism could even be considered to be blasphemy. As religious networks are still particularly strong in Bosnia and religion and nationalism are so closely intertwined, religion is considered an important instrumental force for peacebuilders.

This understanding of justice is more in line with group-level animosity that they try to deal with when engaging with communities to achieve inter-ethnic or inter-faith dialogue. To achieve justice, and to create dialogue, after such a conflict and in such a society is not merely about assigning responsibility and guilt. Rather, it requires the acceptance and recognition of all parties to the conflict that they were both victim and victimizer, that they have been subjected to horrendous crimes, while they have also committed such crimes against others. As group based thinking is still largely present, this must happen not only at an individual level, but also on a group level. The victim-narratives that prevail within each ethnic group play an important role in maintaining support for nationalist narratives. To change this, each group, and as a consequence society collectively, needs to change the way in which they talk about the war and the crimes committed in it: ‘So how do we talk about history? Do we only talk about our victims? But not really when we were the victimizers? This is not justice’ (peace worker, Center for Peacebuilding, BiH). 

Assigning guilt is not accepting responsibility

The behavior of both Mladic and Praljak during the pronouncement of the ICTY’s ruling is very telling in this regard. Mladic was removed from the courtroom, because he yelled ‘lies, lies’ during the pronouncement of the verdict. Praljak not only verbally expressed that he rejected the verdict, but in addition committed suicide by drinking poison in protest against the verdict pronounced against him. Both acts clearly show that Mladic and Praljak are not willing to accept responsibility for the crimes committed. This attitude resonates at a societal level and allows these verdicts to be used by all three camps in the current political system to stress their point, namely that the other group is still out to get them. The conviction of Mladic, in essence, does not lead to recognition of the atrocities committed by each group either at a societal or a state level.

Compared to the understanding of justice as expressed by community leaders trying to stimulate inter-faith and inter-ethnic dialogue, the justice as delivered by the ICTY is thus limited in two ways. Firstly, it only focuses on the assigning of guilt and not on the accepting of responsibility. Secondly, it addresses only the injustices done by individuals, even though the animosity experienced in Bosnia – during the war, but also still today – is rather located at a group-level. Rather than reconciliation between these groups, the court proceedings seem to foster distrust against the ICTY as well as against other groups. The responses of Mladic and Praljak are, in a way, even more exemplary of the current situation in Bosnia: nobody is willing to accept responsibility and the finger-pointing against other groups continues.

This is not to say that the verdicts and sentencing of Mladic, Praljak and others do not constitute justice. But to achieve justice not only in a judicial sense, but also at a social and political level, then, accepting responsibility at a group level seems indispensable. Religious perspectives on justice and reconciliation may prove vital in achieving this in a society where religious identities are closely entangled with the group identities that constitute the differences important in social and political life. Although guilt is assigned, the acceptance of responsibility is still a rarity.


[1] See for example the three volumes of Helsinki Watch, a Division of Human Rights Watch (1992) War Crimes in Bosnia-Hercegovina


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