Preventing recurrence: Policy alternatives for transitional justice in the Western Balkans

15 February 2022

A report by GAAMAC partner Impunity Watch aims to assist policymakers in widening the space for arguments around transitional justice, to give it direction by providing ideas for an alternative framework that links transitional justice to the prevention of recurrence of violence.

In the Balkans, generation after generation has handed down stories of violence and unjust interference – passing on the need for revenge. Michael Ignatieff describes in Blood and Belonging the “learned feelings of vengeance” that have kept societies in the Balkans hostage for decades: “From father to son, from son to son, there is no end to it, this form of love, this keeping faith between generations which is vengeance.”

There is no such thing as forgetting violence and atrocities and people in the Western Balkans have learned this in a traumatic way, perpetrators and victims alike. There is no neutral starting point after atrocities. Connecting the past and the present becomes unavoidable. And the memories that people carry with them inform their perceptions of risk and of opportunity. That means that these memories also shape the future, to a large extent.

So if all of this is unavoidable, then the question for societies in the Western Balkans is: What is the most constructive way of dealing with all these legacies that cannot be unlearned? How can the past be addressed to enable a better future?

The report Preventing recurrence: Policy alternatives for transitional justice in the Western Balkans, co-produced by GAAMAC partner Impunity Watch and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), makes suggestions on what can be done differently in managing the past for a better future, how to transform existing knowledge and experience into concrete, lasting change.

Structure and scope of the report

Preventing recurrence focuses on different dimensions: the institutional level, the level of civil society and the cultural and individual sphere:

  • First, transitional justice efforts have focused on institutions. While strong institutions can help build trust which in turn foster stability and peace, today’s institutions – including the judiciary – are weak and political interference and corruption are systemic. The report suggests how to strengthen transitional justice mechanisms, such as criminal prosecutions.
  • Second, the report looks at civil society as a key factor for prevention of the recurrence of violence. Civil society has been the driving force behind efforts to deal with the past. The report presents policy choices that strengthen civil society so it can perform this vital, preventive function.
  • Third, the report looks at cultural interventions around the past such as memorialisation. The report provides elements for a policy agenda that reinforces interventions at the cultural and individual level in order to prevent the recurrence of violence.

The timing is right to challenge nationalistic interpretations of the past, the use of fear of other ethnic groups as a political tool to remain in power and the “us v. them” logic of politics in the Balkans. Do we want the next generation to continue to learn the same ideas of violence, divisions, hatred and revenge? Dealing with the past can help to interrupt this if used more strategically and at different levels. It can allow another perspective on the past, not as a measure of control or from the perspective of power and identity but as a meeting place to jointly discuss and debate without ideology but as citizens of a region in the heart of Europe.

Read the report

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