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Difficult Path To Reconciliation In Bosnia

December 20, 2010

A thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, examines local reconciliation processes in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The central focus is the question of what role the Hague tribunal plays in these processes. The results show that people combine different strategies to cope with the past in everyday life and that the Hague tribunal is both helping and hindering.

In recent times the international community has focused to an ever increasing extent not only on ending war, but also on building peace. Transitional justice, which includes, for example, tribunals and truth commissions, has become an increasingly important tool in such reconstruction work. However, we don’t know much about what effect these efforts have at a local level in war-torn societies. It is a common assumption that “truth and justice lead to reconciliation”, but knowledge as to how, and in what way, remains fragmentary.

Johanna Mannergren Selimovic approaches these questions through a field investigation in the community of FoÄÂa in eastern Bosnia. During the 1992-95 war, serious war crimes were committed here, leading to high-profile trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. During the war, practically all Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were forced to flee. Today some of them have returned, and Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs live side by side. Residents are constantly confronted with contradictory and competing accounts in their everyday lives ““ what actually happened during the war? Who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? How can justice be administered?

Silence, an example of strategy

The thesis shows that inhabitants employ a variety of strategies for handling these issues. Silence is one such strategy. This silence is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is a tool for treating others with respect. On the other hand, it strengthens them and helps to maintain the boundary between “we” as victims and “them” as perpetrators. The thesis also shows that these collective and excluding narratives are not “frozen”. Strategies for coexistence include various forms of interaction, for example, at workplaces and with neighbours. Some people go further than that and advocate active forms of coexistence, although this does not have to include consensus. Awareness of these processes opens the door for understanding of reconciliation as an ongoing and dynamic process that can handle diversity.

In this complex and friction-filled local world the Hague tribunal is used in a range of different ways, which reveal tension between local perceptions of truth and justice and the international discourse. The thesis shows that the work of the Hague tribunal to administer justice is largely contributing to cementing ethno-nationalistic accounts. At the same time the tribunal is being used to create a data archive for the future.

“The work of the Hague tribunal is nearing its end. In many ways it has been crucial to the process of transitional justice and we can learn important lessons from the role it plays in Bosnia. I hope that my research can also contribute to a deeper understanding of other convergences between local processes and international efforts to achieve truth, justice and reconciliation,” says Johanna Mannergren Selimovic.

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