Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks says that the reconciliation process in the Western Balkans has stalled.
In his latest Human Rights Comment, Muiznieks also noted that ethnic divisions and polarization have been growing in the region.
“These relate in particular to denial of genocide, glorification of war criminals and attempts to rehabilitate persons involved in crimes committed during the 1990s’ wars,” the CoE cited him on its website, adding:
“What is more, divisions have been exacerbated by World War II-related historical revisionism, inflammatory discourse by certain political leaders, and persisting ethnic segregation in education.”
In the report, written after he visited the region, Muiznieks says that it is “high time for the region’s political leaders to work jointly to address issues of the past and to forge a common vision of the future.”
Addressing the issue of the missing persons, he noted that states are legally bound to investigate serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, and to uphold the victims’ right to the truth.
“Of the almost 40 000 persons who went missing during the 1990s’ wars, more than two thirds have been accounted for, an achievement that is unprecedented at a global level. However, the successful conclusion of this process is hindered by the lack of political will and by inadequate financial and human resources for exhumations and necessary forensic work. Moreover, with the passage of time potential witnesses who may provide information about mass graves die or are reluctant to testify,” the report states.
“Several important mass graves have been found in recent years, including those in Tomašica and Korićani Cliffs, Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Rudnica, Serbia. Nonetheless, in the absence of a genuine political dialogue at the regional level and without the opening of all military and police archives that may hold important information about missing persons, there will be little or no progress in this area,” Muiznieks said.
He also addressed fighting impunity for war-time related crimes at the international and domestic levels, to say that impunity “encourages the committal and repetition of crimes, inflicts additional suffering on victims and has adverse effects on the rule of law and public trust in justice.”
“As the mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) comes to an end in December 2017, the ICTY’s pivotal role in ensuring accountability for serious human rights violations needs to be highlighted. Its legacy needs to be presented and explained to the public in the region in a non-biased, persuasive manner, including through education, while its vast evidence base and case-law should continue to be used in relevant domestic proceedings,” the CoE official writes.
The report further states that “some positive developments can be noted in the prosecution of war crimes at national level, such as advances in the prosecution of war-related crimes of sexual violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Nonetheless, Muiznieks continues, “fight against impunity is moving far too slowly and a number of serious shortcomings persist – for example, in Serbia and Croatia criminal proceedings have so far only targeted low-level police and military officers.”
“In Kosovo* the work on complex war crimes cases is a serious challenge for the domestic judiciary, given the number of structural problems in this country’s justice system and very low levels of public trust in institutions,” the report said.
Muiznieks also stressed lack of effective protection of and support to witnesses and of regional cooperation in this context continue to be serious obstacles to the effective prosecution of wartime related crimes.
He also recalled a 2005 CoE document that urged states to provide victims with adequate, prompt and effective reparations.
“States have a positive obligation – firmly entrenched in international human rights law – to tackle and eradicate school segregation. In spite of this, generations of children in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ have been educated in ethnically segregated schools under the pretext of the protection of language and cultural rights of a certain ethnic group,” Muiznieks writes.
The report concludes that in the last decade, countries in the region made important steps to bring their legislation and practice in line with European and international standards – but “the current signs of regression in the region risk compromising the progress made so far.”
“In order to reverse these negative trends, drawing from the lessons of the past, all political actors need to put their short-term political goals aside and focus on strengthening social cohesion instead of amplifying ethnic divisions,” Muiznieks said.