Photo: Atdhe Mulla

Transitional justice in Kosovo, 10 years after independence

Despite slow progress, Kosovo has taken initiative to address atrocities committed during the war. Now the country must focus its efforts on RECOM, education reform, and missing persons.

Before 2008, we could have thought that we were not independent enough to influence transitional justice in Kosovo. We could have blamed others for not doing enough for the fate of missing persons and seeking the truth about what happened, and we could have said that our lack of independence kept us from bringing justice for war victims. We could have thought that we would get away with not having an inclusive reparations scheme and an impartial curriculum on the war in our education system.

But by declaring independence, even if we were not aware of it at the time, Kosovo pledged to move forward as a new multi-ethnic state. Now it has been 20 years since the war and 10 years since the declaration of independence, and we still have a long way to go in dealing with the past.

The early years after the war were a period of agony, when families of victims desperately knocked on every door, trying to gain even the smallest bit of information about the perpetrators or the whereabouts of their loved ones. One of the few doors to respond to this call was the Humanitarian Law Center, HLC, which has continuously worked on documenting all war casualties from the period of 1998-2000. This was finalized with the creation of the Kosovo Memory Book database, which is a comprehensive record of individual human losses from the conflict. This record, which includes more than 31,000 documents, is a detailed and inclusive documentation of individual cases of human loss.  Having done more than what any Kosovo institution has done so far, this initiative and the continuous endeavour to acknowledge all victims regardless of their ethnicity led to the nomination of Natasa Kandic and the HLC for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Additionally, HLC was one of the organizations that spearheaded the establishment of RECOM, an initiative for a regional commission to establish facts about war crimes and serious human rights violations committed in the former Yugoslavia from January 1, 1991 until December 31, 2001. The Coalition for RECOM was established the very same year that Kosovo declared independence.

Kosovo, as an independent state, actually supported RECOM, and still does. At the end of 2017, the President of Kosovo was amongst other regional presidents to appoint  a personal envoy for drafting the agreement on the establishment of RECOM. It is expected that these envoys will sign the agreement in the next meeting organised within the Berlin Process this July in London. Human rights activists have struggled in the past to reignite this regional initiative, and hopefully the meeting of envoys this summer will progress the initiative to officially establish RECOM.

Kosovo has also recently shown its own willingness to work towards the truth component of transitional justice. This began with President Hashim Thaci commemorating  Serb victims on the anniversary of the Starogradsko mass killing in August 2016, and then continued with statements acknowledging Serb and other non-majority victims of the war.

This willingness was cemented when Hashim Thaci launched his initiative for the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC. Kosovo started to move towards acknowledging and seeking the truth only 19 years after the first war events, and nine years after the launch of the RECOM Initiative. Although his initiative for a commission is a good concept, it remains to be seen whether or not this Commission will be able to bring a comprehensive truth that will contribute to the reconciliation process.

Currently, Kosovo appears to prioritize its internal truth-seeking initiatives rather than intensifying its support for RECOM, but the importance of a comprehensive truth should not be neglected. Kosovo is a small piece of the RECOM puzzle, but it is a very important one. By focusing its institutional support on RECOM, Kosovo would benefit from a comprehensive truth about its past.

Mass graves with a majority of Albanian victims have been found on Serbia’s territory, and there are thought to be more in Serbia that have not yet been found. According to the Kosovo Memory Book, there are more than 1,665 persons from all communities still missing. It would be easier for Kosovo to request access to this information through a regional approach. A regional approach would also help the country offer the truth on atrocities committed in Kosovo by sharing findings from its own TRC.

Thaci’s national TRC is a step forward in the dealing with the past process, but there is a lot more to be done. Finding mass graves will depend on regional cooperation. What about the more than 300 body remains found in previously discovered mass graves that are still in the Institute of Forensic Medicine, and whose DNA analyses do not match with the blood samples collected from the family members of missing persons? The issue of missing persons has yet to be introduced as a topic in the Brussels-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. These are some issues for which the state could have intervened, but has not.

Kosovo’s limited results in terms of truth-seeking over the past 10 years are also met with limited results in education reforms. Over the past two years, I have visited high schools in almost every Kosovo municipality to conduct workshops on dealing with the past with HLC’s project “non-formal education on dealing with the past.” I noticed from the first day that there is a lack of information amongst youth about the events that led to the conflict, and that hate speech is a norm amongst our youth when they refer to the war.

There are of course several reasons for this, but a major one is our formal education system, namely our textbooks, which at best lack information, and at worst spread false information and negative values on how to deal with these sensitive topics.

Ten years after independence, history textbooks in Kosovo are the same ones that were published right after the war. These old textbooks portray the 1999-2000 events in a partial way and have outdated data on war casualties, and thus fail to acknowledge the variety of victims of the war. Civic education textbooks also need to include information on dealing with the past. One of the ways to move forward in this field might be including a chapter on transitional justice in civic education textbooks.  

The new generations, who did not go through war themselves, need to be prepared for acknowledging and accepting the truth that is established in dealing with the past initiatives. This can only be achieved by having inclusive education, through which the youth first learn how to be receptive and respectful towards every community living in Kosovo, and then be presented with credible and unbiased information about the historical events that led to the conflict.

Kosovo, as a multi-ethnic state, in addition to developing laws integrating minority communities into society, has also featured several important developments on including minorities in the dealing with the past process. This is exemplified by Thaci’s own initiatives to acknowledge the victims of both sides, concrete steps including the national TRC, and even more importantly, his pledge to support RECOM.

Acknowledging this progress, I would also like to criticize Kosovo for being very slow to deliver results to move forward on these topics. By supporting the regional approach towards finding the whole truth, working on internal unsolved issues such as the 300 body remains in the forensic institute, and prioritizing the empowerment of Kosovo’s education system, we could open the door to have a prosperous 20th anniversary of independence. Otherwise, if Kosovo takes another 10 years to achieve such little progress as has been done so far, dealing with the past will be a never-ending story for us.

Njomza Haxhibeqiri is the project coordinator for the “non-formal education on dealing with the past” project at Humanitarian Law Center Kosovo.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

14 February 2018 - 15:15

Njomza Haxhibeqiri

14/02/2018 - 15:15

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.