There Are More Than Victims and Former Combatants

21 November 2018   ·   Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer

In transitional justice contexts, court verdicts often do not enjoy universal acceptance. Thus, Germany should promote the interplay between judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to increase trust in the judgements. Also, the German approach has to overcome the binary of victims and perpetrators and foster the public participation of a much broader spectrum of actors in transitional justice processes.

Previous authors on the PeaceLab blog have already addressed several shortcomings of transitional justice (TJ) mechanisms, like the neglect of the socioeconomic dimension in post-war and post-dictatorial states. That being so, the value of TJ mechanisms for societies transitioning from war and state oppression to peace, democracy and the rule of law is indispensable. These mechanisms still present central measures to combat impunity, and may generate a general sense of security and safety.

However, this endeavor remains incomplete and ineffective if post-conflict societies avoid tackling issues of socioeconomic inequalities, corruption, and poverty, as already underlined by Lisa Laplante and Ruben Carranza. One of these factors has particularly negative effects: corruption is the main destabilizing factor for peacebuilding and democratic order and diminishes the potential of non-judicial measures to complement the prosecution of war crimes. Additionally, corruption and nepotism cause a severe brain-drain of the young generations that are important agents of transformation and emancipation.

Having said this, I would like to emphasize further aspects that should receive more attention from the German Federal Government while it elaborates a strategy for dealing with the past.

Interplay between judicial and non-judicial mechanisms is key

Immediately after the (negotiated) end of war and regime change, the prosecution of war crimes plays an important role and needs intense international support. At the same time, it is critical that donors such as Germany pay more attention and actively support non-judicial measurements for dealing with war-related consequences like displacement, trauma and societal division in the aftermath of war and oppression. In this early phase, cooperation between legal and court experts on the one hand, and civil society actors that focus on dealing with the past on the other hand, is key.

The German government, together with other international actors, should invest in setting up structures that will allow a more coordinated, intense and well-planned cooperation between the courts, public services and civil society actors. Court judgements and their meaning for inter-ethnic coexistence need to be explained to the public and communities, especially in divided societies/communities. In the Western Balkans, the majority of court judgements sparked controversies and deepened mistrust and intensified animosities. Knowing that court verdicts quite often do not enjoy universal acceptance, and subsequently worsen inter-ethnic communication, it is important to invest in measures of trust-building and prejudice-reduction.

Set up communal counselling teams

Based on forumZFD’s experience in communal conflict counselling in Germany, I would advocate setting up analog communal counselling teams that mediate between different communal actors like public services, educational and cultural institutions as well as local authorities and business that will facilitate processes of solving war-related problems that burden a community.

Another inspiring example is the women’s civil society organization “Vive Zene” in the Bosnian town Tuzla. The psychosocial team of this NGO organized dialogue series between war victims and court officials in order to enable war victims to better understand court proceedings. They prepare victims to more realistically assess the outcomes and impacts of war crime prosecutions that in many cases only deliver partial justice and satisfaction.                  

The German government should also support the establishment of city partnerships among cities that have suffered horrific destructions in war times, and expand the network of cities where civil society associations combine memory and peace work on communal and inter-communal level. The organization “Memorarem Pace – Gesellschaft für Friedenskultur. Erinnern und Zukunft gestalten” in Dresden is an exemplary model.  

Overcome competitive victimhood

The transitional justice frame focuses primarily on victims and perpetrators and addresses questions of innocence and guilt as binary opposites. This is why the needs and perceptions of victims and former combatants influence and guide memorialization processes and dealing-with-the-past-issues in post-war societies. This narrow circle of actors confines the space for a pluralistic civic engagement. The German government should rather initiate and foster public participation of a much broader spectrum of actors that do not exclusively follow the claims, needs and concerns of victims’ and veterans’ organizations.

In victim-oriented dealing-with-the-past-approaches, the past and history of communities or states involved in the conflict is largely reduced to violent and antagonistic periods of a shared past, so as to construct an alleged continuity of victimhood and antagonism, and forward a tendency that Nurit Shnabel and others termed as competitive victimhood.      

Engage the public and communities through art and public history

I would agree with Constantin Goschler that the German government should integrate approaches and the methodology of public history into its dealing-with-the-past-strategy. Public history engages the whole public instead of concentrating and encouraging only an exclusive group of actors. Furthermore, it rests on the premise that, in the course of the democratization of knowledge and the claim for more civic participation, a wide range of public actors beyond the academic settings produce historical knowledge.

Through public participation in exhibitions, film and theater productions, interactive museums that address different aspects of history as well as shared and disputed cultural heritage, public history aims to support processes of emancipation from instrumentalized and ideologically biased ways of using the past. Hence, it allows the acquisition of historical literacy. Important public institutions that combine remembering, critical reflection and collaborative learning are, for example, the Historical Museum in Sarajevo, the District Six Museum in Cape Town, and the memorial site Villa Grimaldi in Santiago de Chile.

Involve diasporic communities in Germany

A further recommendation is that the German government should seriously consider involving members of diaspora communities in Germany into its dealing-with-the-past-strategy. These communities steadily and in manifold ways support their communities and the countries from which  they migrated. To this end, the German government should conduct research on how diasporic communities empower and support conflict- and war-torn communities in their countries of origin, and how they could become strategic partners in constructive dealing-with-the-past-processes. 

Against the background of growing extreme forms of xenophobia, the German Government should consider publicly portraying a more positive image of diasporic communities in Germany. It is of immense importance to present the numerous networks of solidarity, care, and reliable support that co-citizens with migration backgrounds established over the years. The public sphere as well as peace and conflict researchers should give more attention to the stabilizing effects and the contribution of this kind of informal support for peacebuilding.

Transitional Justice

Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer

Dr. Ljubinka Petrovic-Ziemer is Head of the Academy for Conflict Transformation in forumZFD.