Legal Issues In the News

Political Reconciliation


In March 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb political leader during the Bosnian War from 1992-1995, guilty on charges including genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.  He was acquitted on one count of genocide. This verdict spawned significant controversy and commentary.  Indeed, one journalist concluded, “In Bosnia now, we are as far away from reconciliation as we were before the Karadzic trial.”  In this comment I want to explain why this is a reasonable claim to make.

Political reconciliation is the process of rebuilding damaged political relationships. One key part of this process is establishing the conditions that make trust reasonable.  To trust an individual is to take a hopeful view of the competence and will of the other. Lack of ill will signals the absence of the desire or intention to harm fellow citizens or officials and a commitment to fair play - a willingness to obey the rules. Trust also entails an expectation that the trusted person will prove reliable, and not exploit our trust.  This expectation is also a moral demand, which is why violations of trust are experienced not simply as disappointments but as betrayals. 

Why do we think relationships are damaged when trust is absent?  Taking a trusting view and acting on a trustful expectation expresses respect, because it presumes fellow citizens and officials are competent, basically decent and committed to fair play. To be trust-responsive is respectful because it recognizes the right of others to make moral demands of us.

Political trust is absent following war and repression.  Deep distrust is the most typical and, indeed, reasonable attitude to adopt. This is especially so when conflict is characterized by ethnic cleansing and genocide, as was the case in the Bosnian War.  One of the central aims of processes of political reconciliation is to establish conditions where it becomes reasonable to trust citizens and officials (again). 

Reactions to the Karadzic trial point to the absence of conditions that would make trust reasonable.  For trust to be reasonable there must be acknowledgement of past wrongdoing.  Acknowledgement can provide some evidence of the absence of a desire or intention to harm those previously harmed, and a basic knowledge of how members of a political community should interact.

Among prominent Bosnian Serbs, reactions to the conviction cast doubt on the justice of the verdict, by calling into question the impartiality and competence of the ICTY, characterizing Karadzic as a hero unjustly targeted and victimized by such proceedings, and focusing on crimes against the Serbs that have so far gone unpunished. Missing is any recognition that Serbian forces committed any wrongdoing during the Bosnian War.  Such reactions thus provide no evidence that similar wrongdoing will not happen again in the future.

For many Bosnian Muslims, reactions have reflected consternation about the genocide count on which Karadzic was acquitted and the message which that acquittal sent, objection to the limited duration of the sentence, and worries about the trial ultimately being interpreted as vindicating or justifying the actions of Serbs. Underlying such reactions is the expectation of continuing denial.

Such divided reactions also point to important limits to the contributions criminal trials on their own can make to political reconciliation.  Trials of individual perpetrators cannot by themselves establish the conditions under which trust of fellow citizens and officials become reasonable.  This requires examining conditions that made wrongdoing possible in the first place.