11/28/2012 09:07 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Following the ICTY Verdict, What Does the Future Hold for Those Working Towards Reconciliation in the Balkans?

The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has just acquitted general Ante Gotovina, former commander of the Croatian army, and Mladen Markač, former commander of the special forces of the Croatian Interior Ministry after having both previously been found guilty in Trial Chamber I, receiving respective prison sentences of 24 and 19 years. The ICTY had charged them with war crimes and crimes against humanity for the killing of Serb civilians and soldiers who had laid down their weapons and for the forced displacement of tens of thousands of Serbs from Croatia in 1995. In its appeals judgment, the ICTY of The Hague no longer holds that these acts were part of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) of ethnic cleansing directed towards Serbs in Croatia.

The international justice system should be able to carry out its work in an independent manner and should under no circumstances pass sentences based on possible repercussions in the countries affected. However, it should also be comprehensible and consistent. It would seem that the reasons behind this reversal are incredibly vague. Indeed, Judge Fausto Pocar, who voted against the judgment, stated, "I fundamentally dissent from the entire appeal judgment which contradicts any sense of justice." "I do not know the basis upon which this decision has been taken," reacted the former ICTY Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, declaring her "shock at this acquittal."

CCFD-Terre Solidaire, which has been supporting local associations committed to working towards reconciliation across former Yugoslavia, feels attention must be drawn to certain worrying consequences of this decision.

In Zagreb, former fighters have once again clad themselves in military attire and are voicing their triumph while waving the Croatian flag, victoriously welcoming the acquitted. In Belgrade, the Serbian press is upping the ante by publishing feature articles, archive images and witness accounts of the suffering of former refugees from Croatia. What's more, the Serbian President, Tomislav Nikolić has just declared that reconciliation would now be "difficult" and his Deputy Prime Minister has in turn decided to cancel an official visit to Croatia. These facts alone point to the reawakening of nationalist discourse and hostility between Serbs and Croats following this ICTY decision. All reconciliation work being led by civil society is threatened.

Since the end of the Yugoslav wars, governments have been struggling to truly break with the regimes that were in power in the 1990s. Despite this, civil society organizations in the Balkans have been striving day after day to sew back together a torn social fabric. In Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Kosovo, while war was still raging, these organizations committed to working for international justice. They decided to lay their trust in the ICTY, to work for justice and truth and to let nothing stand in the way of them collecting evidence for crimes and massacres. The ICTY has been able to bring together a large number of witness accounts and evidence of crimes committed. This is thanks to the work of these associations which has been carried out in spite of continuous political intimidation from nationalists and suspicious, even overtly hostile glares from their fellow compatriots. Here, we can take the example of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC), a Serbian association set up by Nataša Kandić, which has convinced many victims to testify before the ICTY. Another example would be the Youth Initiative for Human Rights network, a partner organization of CCFD-Terre Solidaire, which was set up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo. It approaches young people, explaining how crucial it is to get to know the truth regarding the atrocities committed during the wars. In order to work against prejudice and fear, the group gathers together young people from these countries in symbolic locations such as Srebrenica, Prijedor or Vukovar with the aim of ensuring that they "do not grow up as brothers at war".

Following the decision of the ICTY, the members of these associations are questioning their faith in the international justice system for the first time. They have reluctantly had to publicly distance themselves from this verdict. The HLC writes, "this judgment brings no justice to the victims. This judgment reduces the mass crimes committed during and after the military-police Operation Storm to isolated incidents. Thus, from now on, no one will criticize the Croatian authorities for their reluctance or failure to prosecute war crimes against Serbs".

What's more, a great deal could also be said for our Serbian partner organization, Grupa 484, which has been carrying out the extraordinary task of raising awareness among young people in order to ensure that the crimes of the 1990s can never be repeated. Now, their representatives have left aside their more reserved approach, writing, "many aspects of the reconciliation process are in jeopardy by this verdict; it essentially hinders the possibility for a common and balanced position towards the recent past, particularly towards building peace, trust and cooperation in the region".

Another organization, this time in Croatia, the Civic Committee for Human Rights, has for years been helping previously expelled Serb families to regain their rights and to make the Croatian state acknowledge its responsibilities in the atrocities committed against the Serbs. The Committee has now been thrown into a state of disarray and is trying through whatever means possible to calm the Croatian triumphant joy.

This distrust towards the ICTY is even more a cause for concern, given that it may be applied to previous judgments as well as decisions taken in the future. This verdict will cast a long permanent shadow over the patient work of Serb, Croat, Bosnian and Kosovar associations which have been tirelessly working for justice and reconciliation. How will these groups explain to the families of victims the need to believe in international justice and the importance of participating in this process? How will they be able to educate young generations from now on to pave the way for a shared history free from bitterness and resentment?

Reconciliation in the Balkans will only be possible through work being carried out by the region's civil society on the ground. Time will be needed in order to overcome the shock and to rediscover the energy necessary in building a shared memory of this painful past.

Julie Biro, Balkans specialist at CCFD-Terre Solidaire.

This post was translated from the original French and first appeared at Le Huffington Post.