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The Region is Far from Reconciliation

Dion van den Berg, Team leader of Europe team PAX from Utrecht, Netherlands

On the occasion of the International Human Rights Day, December 10th 2020 within the Special Edition supported by forumZFD
The Region is Far from Reconciliation

True progress is impossible to achieve until people in power keep promoting exclusive narratives that serve their own interests.

It is more than obvious that the region is far from reconciliation. Above all: the politicians, religious leaders, media and citizens need to acknowledge and admit the facts. The case of Srebrenica involves well documented facts and the International Court of Justice and the Hague Tribunal have passed the verdict that there indeed genocide happened – Dion van den Berg, leader of Europe team PAX, stresses in her interview for the Daily Danas.

Can you tell us a little bit about PAX? In which countries PAX works? How are you trying to build peace across the globe?

PAX means peace. PAX brings together people who have the courage to stand for peace. Together with people in conflict areas and concerned citizens worldwide, PAX works to build just and peaceful societies across the globe. PAX works on the basis of two central values of peace in conflict areas: human dignity and solidarity with peace activists and victims of war violence. PAX has projects and programs in Colombia, parts of Africa, the Middle East and Europe. We also conduct campaigns against nuclear weapons and lobby for humanitarian disarmament. We started working in this part of Europe in the second half of the eighties, supporting human rights activists, when it was still Yugoslavia. 

This year we mark 25 years of Srebrenica Genocide. It seems that this region is far away from reconciliation? In your opinion, what does this region need in order to deal with the past? 

It is very clear that the region is still far from reconciliation. First of all, there has to be an establishment and acknowledgement of the facts, by politicians, religious leaders, media and citizens at large. In the case of Srebrenica: the facts are well documented and both the international Court of Justice and the Hague Tribunal have ruled that it was indeed a genocide. 

Recently PAX has published “Mapping Inclusive Memory Initiatives in the Western Balkans”. How important are these initiatives? What would you recommend to the organizations that are fighting for the truth and reconciliation?

First of all, I would say: please, do not give up! Many of them are under huge pressure. They are openly attacked and labeled ‘traitors’ and most of the political elite are glorifying war criminals. In our opinion, inclusive memory initiatives are very important, as they invite citizens to look at certain events of recent history from various perspectives. People affected by war can relate to other victims of war when they meet and share their personal suffering, but the political context does not allow that inter-human connection to develop into a basis for critical and self-critical engagement with the past. As long as people in power promote exclusive narratives to serve only their own interests, true progress will be impossible to achieve. 

By means of inclusive memory initiatives alternative and inclusive visions on history can develop, and that would open up a process of better inter-ethnic relations, more social cohesion, more justice, more security and better regional co-operation. Citizens throughout the region would benefit, Europe as a whole would benefit. 

What do you think about the international role in the Western Balkans? For example, should it be stronger when it comes to the Serbian - Kosovo issue?

We do support a stronger role of the international community. These weeks, 25 years after the Dayton Peace Accords, we are pleading for a more robust role in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The international community has abandoned in particular the citizens and civil society in that country, by primarily engaging with politicians who have little interest in true democracy and human rights. That Bosnia and Herzegovina is at many levels a dysfunctional state, is quite functional for them. A former diplomat recently asked: ‘Is it realistic to turn the arsonists into firefighters?’  No, it is not, and the international community cannot impose democracy or respect for human rights. But it can start listening better to citizen’s needs, and allow the public demand for change to grow stronger. 

The Serbian – Kosovo issue is quite similar. In particular the EU can and must engage more actively. The key obstacles in the Belgrade – Pristina dialogue are well-known and good results will be very difficult to achieve without public support, but still only few people meet behind closed doors. The whole process should be much more transparent and the EU should show a sincere interest in what citizens need. More can be done to support projects to bring citizens of various backgrounds together to discuss and solve issues of common interest.  

We are witnessing that there is less and less democracy in the world. How can citizens fight for the rule of law and democracy in dictatorial regimes?

I personally remember well the period of the eighties, before the end of the Cold War. Together with other independent peace organizations in Western Europe we connected with human rights activists in the Warsaw Pact countries. Dissident Vaclav Havel, who later became the first democratic president of Czechoslovakia, spoke about the need ‘to live in truth’. Small groups can make a difference. Havel’s organization, Charter 77, grew bigger and got the support of the masses. The fact that the public demand for change got stronger and the communist rule lost its credibility was crucial for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. That is all too often overlooked by historians, who think that only Reagan and Gorbachev did the job. That is a harmful simplification of a long-term multi-layered process in which the call for democracy developed and grew stronger step by step. We thus plea for the rehabilitation of the citizen as the key actor in democracy. The citizens are not there to serve the political elite, but it is the other way around. 

Over the decades, we have also met so excellent people in Serbia, value-driven citizens. We did not only meet them among our primary partners, the peace and human rights activists, but also in the cultural scene, in politics and the religious communities. 
There is not a simple one-size-fits-all recipe of how to overcome a dictatorial regime. We do see that values are crucial, demands that values – well embedded in international laws and offer in national laws as well - should be upheld. 

And processes of democratization necessarily take a long time. That is what we know from the history of democracy, in old and current times. Democracy is so much more than a constitution and ‘free and fair’ elections. Proper democracy is anchored in active citizenship. Writing any law is much easier than the process of practicing democracy together. 

That is also why the international community should go for long-term engagement, rather than thinking that this one man or woman of that one party will bring about democracy. It is quite painful to see how the international community, of which we all are part, is ignoring time and over again what we know about processes of democratization. 

And we do know that there are always people – even in the darkest hour of dictatorship – who speak up and try to live in truth, as Havel put it. Even if big changes seem far away, supporting such people and these small groups is a priority.  

In that sense, what do you think about US elections and the win of Biden? How does his win impact the global issues, such as wars in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh`s, Middle East and Balkan?

Not everything will change over-night, but I do like Biden’s call for decency. Trump’s policy did great harm to international institutions, principles of multilateralism and promotion of democracy and human rights. For sure, Biden is much more aware of developments in Europe. The big risk is that now the European Union would return to a position it took too long, that of following the US in international politics. Trump was a wake-up call for Europe. We now have to take our responsibility – in a renewed partnership with the Biden administration.  

At the end, what do you think about COVID 19 and its impact on the world, especially in the poor countries?

We have seen that non-democratic governments have used the COVID-19 crisis to strengthen their grip on society. We have also seen that world-wide the weaker and more marginalized groups and communities have been hit harder by the consequences of the virus. They deserve our attention. Indeed, helping the less fortunate to overcome the current hardship is another test to our solidarity – in the local, national and international arenas.  

The author of the interview is Jelena Diković - Danas

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