President Hashim Thaci set in motion the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Kosovo – but after he was charged with war crimes, it’s unclear whether any other political leader has the will to push the idea forward.
By Serbeze Haxhiaj*
Back in 2017, Kosovo President Hashim Thaci initiated the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, emphasising that the country must face the truth about what happened during the 1998-99 war so that its people do not remain hostage to the past.
Thaci, who was the political director of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war, said he hoped that the commission would provide the basis for dialogue between Kosovo’s divided communities.
“Kosovo society and the Balkans in general is still a hostage to these old narratives and the generations that were born after the war still see their peers from the other community as enemies, not as [part of] a society for cooperation and coexistence,” he said at a planning meeting for the commission.
In 2018, a preparatory team was set up to prepare legislation to establish the commission. The team’s mandate expired at the end of October this year and it has asked for another six months to finish its work because of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But President Thaci resigned in November after being indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague, raising questions about whether or not others will carry forward the initiative to set up the committee.
Artan Murati, an adviser to Kosovo’s acting president, Vjosa Osmani, said that the issue has not been discussed yet.
“An evaluation of the work and mandate of the preparatory team must be done before proceeding further,” Murati told BIRN.
There is no clarity yet about what exactly the commission aims to achieve, while questions have been raised about whether Kosovo Serbs, who have a different view of the conflict from the country’s ethnic Albanians, will be involved in the process.
Kushtrim Koliqi, one of the members of the preparatory team, told BIRN that the team’s work isn’t finished yet and a meeting with the acting president is needed to work out how to continue.
“While we are working on preparation, a broader political dialogue should start in parallel because this process needs political support. Political consensus is a must [if we want] to go ahead,” Koliqi said.
‘It cannot create reconciliation’
Zenun Xhemajli, 78, who lives in the village of Rracaj in Kosovo’s Gjakova/Djakovica municipality, said he has lost hope that the truth about what happened to his four sons will ever be established
In August 1998, two of his sons, Muharrem, who was 27, and Ilir, 25, were stopped by a Serbian police patrol near their village and taken away.
Less than a year later, on April 27, 1999, his two younger sons, 21-year-old Shkelzen and 19-year-old Alban, were killed alongside 375 other Kosovo Albanians in a massacre in the village of Meja/Meje.
Alban’s remains were found in a mass grave in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica in 2004. But the bodies of Xhemajli’s three other sons are still missing.
Xhemajli has never heard of the initiative to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“If it is dedicated to the victims, not for political calculations, it should be discussed with the victims and their families,” he told BIRN.
“My sons, like many others who are missing, have no grave yet. They can call [the commission] whatever they want but it cannot serve to create reconciliation. It can’t,” he argued.
Similar initiatives for commissions in various other post-conflict countries have failed because they did not create a solid foundation for future inter-ethnic reconciliation.
Jasna Dragovic Soso, a professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Goldsmiths, University of London, expressed doubts that Thaci’s project will turn out to be successful.
“I’m afraid I am not very optimistic at the moment. For many citizens of Kosovo, I think it would be difficult to believe in the authenticity of the former president’s gesture,” Dragovic Soso told BIRN.
She argued that clearer endorsement from the authorities for civil society initiatives to uncover facts about the past in Kosovo and across the post-Yugoslav region would be a step forward.
“An inclusive consideration of the recent past one that seeks to capture and recognise various people’s experiences is a more promising way of approaching difficult and divisive topics,” she explained.
“It is a mistake to burden courts with reconciliation. They need to focus on the determination of the guilt or innocence of individuals and do that well, free of political meddling,” she added.
‘Including ethnic Serbs would be critical’
If the truth commission is established, Kosovo would be the first ex-Yugoslav country to have such a body.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been trying for years to establish a similar institution without any success, while initiatives in Croatia and Serbia have failed.
“In Serbia and Croatia the truth commissions were destined to failure because they were politically driven, designed to simultaneously whitewash history,” said Brian Grodsky, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
“In both of these cases, commissions were a half-baked attempt at watering down international pressures for criminal prosecutions of war crimes,” Grodsky added.
Party politics could also present obstacles to the progress of the initiative in Kosovo.
Thaci said that the commission’s goal would be to reach reconciliation through internal dialogue between communities, and that war victims’ experiences wouls be at the forefront of the initiative.
But opposition politicians argued that Thaci launched the initiative for his own political purposes, not out of a sincere desire for reconciliation.
Grodsky argued that to maximise its legitimacy, a truth and reconciliation commission needs to be established by a broad, representative body.
“It needs to include members who represent to a degree the range of actors involved in the conflict. Including ethnic Serbs would be critical to having an impact,” he said.
“They need to maintain maximum transparency and to be willing to hear and have heard a variety of perspectives, including victims on both sides,” he continued. “Giving some alleged perpetrators the ability to speak could help society, as well, but involves a commitment of protection (like South Africa’s amnesty programme).”
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body set up in the aftermath of apartheid, had the power to grant amnesties to perpetrators of human rights violations.
It focused on establishing a historical record of crimes committed under white minority rule and on formulating proposals for reparations rather than prosecuting those responsible.
Crimes committed during the Kosovo war have been addressed by judiciaries in Kosovo and Serbia, without any great success so far, as well as by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, which secured the convictions of some senior Serbian officials.
Now the Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers is to start trying former Kosovo Liberation Army members for alleged wartime and post-war crimes.
But Grodsky argued that the proposed Kosovo truth commission should not be intended to amass evidence for prosecutions.
“It should complement the work of the [Hague] war crimes court, rather than compete with it,” he said.