Documenting human rights violations: Balkan experience

11-16 May, Serbia, Croatia - Representatives of the Justice for Peace in Donbas CSO coalition visited Serbia and Croatia within a weeklong study tour supported by UNDP in Ukraine to enhance their professional capacity in documenting human rights violations and implementing international humanitarian law.

The visiting delegation included civic activists working for/in Donbas to create a national database of human rights violations and contribute to the restoration of justice. They participated in a series of meetings with Balkan counterparts engaged in the promotion of the rule of law and acceptance of the legacy of mass human rights violations, and therefore in establishing the criminal responsibility of the perpetrators, serving justice, and preventing recurrence.
The Humanitarian Law Center (Serbia) and Documenta Center for Dealing with the Past (Croatia) - the organizations with extensive experience in documenting war crimes and human rights abuses, establishing and maintaining a database of violations, shaping the Kosovo Memory Book, and preparing evidence for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) - acted as hosts for the Ukrainian delegation.
In her opening remarks, Sandra Orlović, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) in Belgrade, emphasized that peacebuilding and reconciliation work should be based on proper investigation of human rights violations and punishment of the perpetrators and calls for prompt recording and public acknowledgement of armed conflict casualties and crimes.
During its visit to Serbia, the Ukrainian delegation was introduced to a wide spectrum of issues. Predrag Miletić, HLC Database Analyst, presented the organization's methodology of documenting human losses, while Bekim Blakaj from HLC Kosovo demonstrated the Center's work on human rights loses in Kosovo. Deputy Executive Director of HLC Marijana Toma spoke of a joint cross-border initiative to establish a Regional Commission to determine and disclose the facts about war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia (RECOM), envisaging regional consultations involving young people, artists, media, human rights NGOs, victims, associations of victims and associations of war veterans, etc.
Later, Ivan Jovanović, international humanitarian law expert, delivered a presentation on war crimes trials in Serbia and ICTY, followed by HLC's Milica Kostić experience-sharing session on Serbian practice of naming and shaming perpetrators. Her presentation was later followed by a visit to Bruno Vekarić, Deputy of the War Crimes Prosecutor of the Republic of Serbia, who shared the country's experience in prosecuting war crimes. Institution's Deputy Chief spoke of Serbian legal provisions and steps taken to investigate and punish war criminals.
There were also talks on obtaining victims' rights in Serbia spearheaded by Sandra Orlović from HLC, and documenting and repairing for sexual violence delivered by Selma Korjenić from TRIAL, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Over the next three days in Croatia, the delegates learnt about Documenta's experience in human loses and personal memories research, introduced by Vesna Teršelič and Slaven Rašković. In his turn, Ivan Grujić from the Commission for Detained and Missing Persons at the Ministry of War Veterans delivered a presentation of a Croatian model of search for missing persons, which claims to be if not the only one in Europe, but definitely a fully comprehensive collection of practices in searching the missing persons in Croatia.
In another session, Davorka Čolak from Croatian State Attorney's Office (section for war crimes) underlined the specificities in preparing war crime cases and cross-country cooperation followed by a Documenta's overview of war crime trials monitoring by NGO since its inception. Nikica Hamer Vidmar from the Association for Support to Victims and Witnesses led the discussion focusing on a witness as a key element in prosecution of war crime trials.
The study tour also featured a talk on Documenta's experience in working directly with victims and victims' families, main challenges and response to them, and personal protection methods, delivered by Tomislav Fresl. The presentation of Marijana Senjak from the Women's Court showcased a space for women's voices and testimonies of the experienced injustices during war and peace time and described the specifics of working with women victims and minimization of damage and re-traumatization. She was echoed by Nela Pamuković from the Center for Women Victims of War who demonstrated hands-on experience of victims support during the war in 90s.
Croatian experience with war crime trials and specialized courts became subject of discussion during a separate session with the judge of County Court Osijek who revealed a Croatian model of establishing transitional system of War Crimes Court Council with its subsequent replacement by 4 specialized war crimes courts.
Goran Božičević presented the work of Miramida Center – Regional Peacebuilding Exchange in peace-building education, with a focus on the work with war veterans and their inclusion in the peace building process. In addition, Slaven Rašković and Tanja Petrović from Documenta made an overview of formal education and work with primary and secondary schools, as well as different approaches and its impact on society in Croatia.
Speaking of culture of memory, Miren Špek and Veselinka Kastratović shared the experience of the Center for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights Osijek, one of the oldest NGO in Croatia dealing with war issues.
Participants followed the entire process of documentation - from collecting information by interviewing witnesses, relatives of victims, and those who were killed or who are missing to the pre-trial and trial. In addition to involvement of responsible authorities in the process (the War Crimes Prosecutor, specialized courts to investigate war crimes, etc.), a key and important component was engagement of NGOs throughout the whole process, including monitoring trials for war crimes.
In particular, participants got familiar with the Analysis of the Prosecution of War Crimes in Serbia 2004-2013, presenting the work of key institutions in the prosecution of war crimes in the country; the Dossier Rudnica, analysis of several war crimes committed by Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999, which open a debate about the accountability for the crimes which were not prosecuted; the Model law on the rights of civilian victims of human rights violations committed during and in connection with the armed conflicts in the period 1991-2001, drafted for the purpose of providing assistance, support and protection to persons, who were civilian victims of the wars or in connection with the wars waged on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and for the purpose of the acknowledgement of their suffering, as well as to change discriminatory criteria in the existing legislation, etc.
Interactions with foreign professionals contributing to the transitional justice process on the territory of former Yugoslavia will be useful for the delegates in defending and promoting human rights in Ukraine and eventual justice restoration to proceed with reconciliation and dealing with the past.
The study tour was carried out in the framework of the Democratization, Human Rights and Civil Society Development project, implemented by UNDP in Ukraine and funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.