Goran Zorić: A change of narrative or ”these are not the 1990s”

It is clear that there is a fine line between the freedom of expression and hate speech. It therefore requires a continuous social dialogue, a continuous re-examination of attitudes, continuous engagement of various social actors in the process of levelling. It is pointless to say that the fact that the prohibition of denial, minimisation, trivialisation, contestation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population would interfere with the freedom of expression, i.e. that persons could not support right-wing political parties. The point is that today, we only have right-wing supporters.

Goran Zorić is an activist of the Youth Centre ”Kvart” in Prijedor and an independent researcher. He is the co-founder of the initiative Jer me se tiče. His fields of interest and engagement include facing the past and human rights. Goran’s experience in dealing with peace processes, including an active engagement in the community he comes from, which has a difficult past and fight for truth and reconciliation in the post-conflict period, was an initial basis for the analysis of the current situation regarding the issue of facing the past. Are there any changes in war narratives? Are mutually exclusive war narratives becoming weaker, being suppressed by other existential issues? What can we still do in our society for reconciliation and building of trust?

L. G.: In your view as an activist and researcher, where do we stand today as a post-conflict society? 

G. Z.: In essence, the whole social reality that we live in has resulted from the war. This means that all identity policies, the social system, the state structure, everything we know today as our social reality, our present society, is based on the war. Over time, other narratives were added to this. On the other hand, it is clear that the Dayton Peace Agreement has actually cast the status quo in cement and created a moment in which it is politically productive to maintain the war positions. However, in Republika Srpska in particular, there is a new series of developments that has inevitably pushed the war discussion in the background. This is particularly the case when it comes to the movement Justice for David and the attempts to impose restrictive laws that limit human rights, and especially the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. And it seems to me that even people dealing with war crimes and processes of facing the past are sometimes at an impasse. I am coming back again to the context of Republika Srpska, it is obvious that Republika Srpska is making rapid strides towards becoming a dictatorship, a regime in which all democratic mechanisms basically exist only on paper. In such a situation, we have to ask the question where we must fight the brutal violations of human rights, brutal suppression of any opinion that differs from the one propagated by the regime? At the moment, it really seems that it makes more sense to deal with the pressing issues, namely situations in which the police is beating people on the street and brutally using police force against the citizens. And, there is the fact that over the past two years, people have been emigrating in masses. In Prijedor, it has become quite obvious everywhere that an enormous number of persons are physically missing in the city.

L. G.: Are war narratives truly becoming weaker, less influential and present due to the focus on the current social situations? Are these parallel processes, which do not have any impact on each other, or do they somehow intertwine, complete each other, rely on each other?       

G. Z.: I believe they are. When I take a look at the past period, it seems that war narratives might be getting weaker as a result of some other social phenomena. They are now more an attempt to discredit all other narratives that are appearing, like the one regarding the movement Justice for David. However, although they are becoming weaker, they are still present. For example, when it comes to Justice for David, there is still the attempt by the political establishment, the regime, institutions that are controlled by the very same people, to impose themselves on the population by using narratives such as that this is an attempt to destroy Republika Srpska, that it is something that comes from the Federation, that foreign spies want to destroy Republika Srpska, that everyone is against Serbs. These are the dominant narratives and although they are not closely connected, they are still intertwined. On the other hand, I had the impression that the movement Justice for David has unintentionally, without having it as one of its objectives, done more for facing the past and fighting nationalism than all of us, who are actually actively engaged in it. In this respect, it was truly fascinating to see how people from the movement Justice for David distanced themselves from nationalism and war narratives during their speeches and gatherings. At a certain moment, people started talking about Stevandić and the red van. Stevandić was notorious during the war and was forcing non-Serb population in Banja Luka to get into the van. People with Serb names were now shouting ”You will no longer drive a red van in Banja Luka”, ”These are no longer the 1990s”, and I thought that it was incredible. We have never managed to achieve that effect in case of such a large number of persons, so that I have the impression that the war narrative is no longer a dominant, homogenous narrative, but that it is rather being used to discredit other narratives, and that it is actually becoming weaker in case of other issues, other social processes. Its position is different as opposed to four or five years ago. I believe that it is still there, but other narratives pushed it into the background.

L. G.: How is the part of transitional justice that deals with criminal law or establishing forensic truth, actually implemented in practice? How do citizens see and understand it, how do politicians see and understand it and how are judgments of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and now the Residual Mechanism interpreted and treated?

G. Z.: I am not reinventing the wheel when I repeat a critique that has been voiced many times both in case of the ICTY and the Outreach Programme of the ICTY, namely that they have always been distant and have not managed to reach the local level in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the other hand, it seems that our system was established in such a way that for politicians it pays off to deny war crimes. In this respect, it seems also important that politicians can’t wait to first deny and then ensure a social position for sentenced war criminals, i.e. organise receptions for sentenced war criminals, give war criminals’ names to institutions, student residence buildings, etc. I believe that it should also be mentioned that all of this happens in a situation in which education has been completely destroyed. Culture has been completely destroyed. The critical attitude towards everything has been destroyed, too. Persons basically do not feel the need to get informed about something before having an opinion. Here, persons do not read, but rather let their emotions guide them. And this is, of course, excellent, so that ‘adequate’ political messages can come across well and be accepted by citizens. And this is a very successful process in case of which everything is denied. The continuous play with war events is typical for this, and one of the examples is the establishment of a new committee for Srebrenica. As a result, one of the major successes of the process of facing the past is fully erased and everything starts from the beginning. When it comes to criminal justice, it basically has had no social consequences. On the contrary, it was a disservice and it actually enabled politicians, persons in charge of institutions, to use it for political manipulation. As regards victims, they are completely ignored. They are remembered only if they are useful for the proponents of these nationalist war-mongering narratives.

L. G.: When it comes to general legal regulation prohibiting denial, minimisation, trivialisation or public condonation of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population, are legal regulations necessary, are legal regulations truly a mechanism we need in our process of facing the past?  

G. Z.: I believe they are necessary, but they are impossible without the willingness to implement them. We see that there are many laws that have never been implemented in practice, that are implemented selectively or arbitrarily. I am therefore not sure whether the situation could be different, since there is no political will to resolve the problem. The law should be part of the solution and a clear and unambiguous implementation of these laws should ensure that things are completed. On the other hand, I have lost faith in this institutional framework. We have been witnessing a complete destruction of the institutional framework over the past 25 years. It seems more important that citizens accept that terrible things happened in their name, so we can exit this vicious circle of enmity that still exists. Such conflicting war narratives are present in case of all three ethnic groups.          

L. G.: Do you think that a prohibition of denial, for example denial of crimes committed in Prijedor or Srebrenica or Kazani, would have had an impact on what you have mentioned – accepting that bad things happened in their name in case of all three ethnic groups?           

G. Z.: Yes, but I do not think that the point is to, for example, leave out the events in Srebrenica from education curricula, but rather that the curricula include facts about Srebrenica established by courts. What I am trying to say is that this is again subject to various interpretations. A prohibition – does that mean ‘ok, we are no longer going to talk about genocide, because we are no longer able to deny’ or does it mean that we will accept the fact that it happened? We live in a very complex state and have to ask the question at what level legal regulations are going to be adopted and what they imply. In my opinion, it makes absolutely no sense to adopt laws on the prohibition of genocide that happened in Srebrenica in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And again, we come back to the issue that, in order for such a law to be adopted in Republika Srpska, there simply has to be a different political will than the one now. Also, there is a strong resistance of representatives of Republika Srpska against the state level, so that even if it happened, it is questionable how effective a law adopted at the state level would be in practice, but also regarding the legal system in Republika Srpska. The question here is not whether such regulations make sense, but rather at which level they should be adopted, who needs to adopt them and what are the consequences for lower government levels. If we speak about what should be subject of the prohibition to deny, minimise, trivialise or condone, these are facts established by courts – these facts should be the basis as to what truly may not be denied. And again, I am not only talking about the ICTY. For example, in case of crimes committed in Prijedor, there are a dozen of judgments of the District Court in Banja Luka. There is a series of judgments of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nevertheless, if laws were adopted and implemented, if they had a legal effect, this would fully change the social structure, because it would enable persons to directly contribute to fighting such war narratives and therefore also denial of war crimes. It is absolutely obvious that our society does not have the capacities to independently fight these problems and understand social dynamics and links between these social processes. The results of twenty-five years of brainwashing and full domination of everything we have today are visible.

L. G.: What can be done in local communities regarding facing the past?   

G. Z.: We can work with youth and try to engage them in processes of facing the past. And this is truly a long-term and difficult task that has to be lengthy in order to be successful. On the other hand, there are some unfortunate circumstances – an enormous number of young people are leaving, especially young people who have a critical opinion, analyse things and who are actually considered to be actors in this process. The social situation is very bad and such things require a long-term engagement. And not to mention the fact that we are fighting such narratives, such an educational system, the media and everything else that is being imposed on us. There is resistance against such processes, I have to stress it. A lot of the resistance comes from young people, who have already become radicalised by right-wing parties. On the other hand, institutions, or politicians in charge of them, are also putting up resistance. This is very interesting, for example, in Prijedor it turned out that both the President of the Assembly, who is a member of SDP – a Bosniak representative, and the former mayor, who is defending Serb interests, are opposing the construction of a memorial for children killed in Prijedor. It is absolutely clear that all of them prefer the status quo, i.e. the presence of different narratives, and that, should there at any moment be an attempt to deal with these narratives, to enter into a dialogue, they would jointly fight against such an attempt.

Sarajevo, 2019/2020

Forum Civil Peace Service (forumZFD) and TRIAL International, organisations that have been active in the field of transitional justice and facing the past, initiated a constructive dialogue about the necessity to adopt a law on prohibition of denial of genocide, holocaust, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the civilian population in 2019. In an attempt to establish and hold open discussions with various actors and relevant groups about this topic, but also a wider dialogue and to raise awareness of the public at large and politicians about the topic of facing the past, a researcher, Lejla Gačanica, conducted a series of interviews with relevant persons as part of the publication Calling War Crimes by Their Right Name – Nazivanje ratnih zločina pravim imenom. The publication can be accessed by using the following link.