Bosnia’s 25-year struggle with “experts’” superficiality and arrogance

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Every major anniversary in the long timeline of tragic events and atrocities which have marked the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina results in a deluge of articles and opinion pieces from international experts, academics and analysts who try and diagnose the state of affairs in the country such and such number of years since the war, draw parallels, and establish grand truths about underlying causes of the country’s struggle to overcome the legacy of mass atrocities which devastated it in the early 1990s. Some of them are better than others, but some of them do nothing but recycle old themes and myths, often providing fodder for nationalistic agendas in the country itself, whose primary narrative is one of failure and impossibility of progress due to ongoing hatreds and the resulting paralysis. This seems to be a continuous theme for many a Balkan “expert” since Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts”.

I am used to it by now and most times let it pass with nothing more than a cynical comment on social networks and a sigh. It is, however, an indication of a larger problem that I recently discussed at a meeting in Berkeley with some of the leading academics and practitioners in the field of transitional justice: the problematic relationship of academics and researchers and the subjects of their research in societies grappling with legacies of mass atrocities. This relationship is often unacceptably exploitative: researchers from the West come, gather the information for their thesis, return to their universities, formulate their findings (often to support preconceived premises) and publish them targeting the small audience of their peers, often with the goal being limited to getting recognition in their academic bubble and winning that coveted tenure track. There is usually no feedback, let alone translation of important findings into “local language,” even though such research often has significant value for the better understanding of processes that “subjects” are grappling with. There are many more aspects of this discussion, which I have no space to go into here, nor is it the point of this blog post.

The point here is something else we touched upon briefly in Berkeley: the destructive impact of “bad research” on the discourse in the mentioned societies, usually deeply polarized because of atrocities. For such texts, usually promoting stereotypes and constructed around superficial research, often fall on the fertile ground of local political agendas, which warmly welcome every opportunity to prop up their premises with references to international “objective expertise” that supports their point of view. In such cases, the subjects of these academic exercises – or to be more precise, victims and survivors of mass atrocity – are not only mere props in the effort to get published, but also often end up dealing with the negative impact of such writing. Being a Bosnian, and having many friends from other countries that share similar experiences, I know this feeling only too well.

The case in question: a couple of days ago, a Bosnian friend sent me the text titled Bosnia’s 25-year struggle with transitional justice” by Brian Grodsky, associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore College, published in the online magazine The Conversation. My friend was infuriated by the link made in the article between the last year’s elections in Srebrenica, which resulted in the victory of Mladen Grujicic, a nationalist known for denial of Srebrenica genocide, and the ill-fated application for revision of the ICJ judgment in the case of BiH vs Serbia. May not seem like much to anyone else, but those immersed in Bosnian politics will surely understand.

I read the piece and was astonished at its superficiality and the ease with which assertions about reconciliation, transitional justice and the impact of the ICTY on the region were made. After reading, I posted a tweet which mocked the tagline of the publication that carried the text, which states: “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. The tweet said: “Tagline: Academic rigour, journalistic flair. After reading this, I propose new: recycled nonsense, ill-informed arrogance.” And left it at that.

I was surprised to see, some hours later, a message from the author, Brian Grodsky, which attributes my tweet to the organization I work for, calls it unprofessional and expresses curiosity at why I take the stance I do. I promised a detailed response and clarified that my tweets (as stated on my Twitter profile) are strictly and always personal, and have nothing to do with my position at the ICTJ. However, Mr. Grodsky continued to insist that they reflect a position of ICTJ since I am identified in my ICTJ role and the Twitter handle links to the ICTJ website. I took this seriously and removed ICTJ association from my Twitter handle to avoid confusing others in a similar way.

It was interesting to note that it never occurred to Mr. Grodsky that my response could have been that of a Bosnian citizen, who is sick and tired of superficial crap being published about my country and my experience, crap that usually goes without response. I don’t know if the lack of any affiliation of my views with ICTJ in this response diminishes its worth in the eyes of Mr. Grodsky, but I do hope it still satisfies his curiosity.

At first I thought of writing a more general reflection on how flawed the premise of the whole text is, but then realized that there are simply so many individual claims in it that are so highly problematic that I need to address them individually. Quotes from Mr. Grodsky’s text are in italics and my responses below.

 

  1. Although bombs ceased falling in 1995, in many ways the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are as divided as ever.

This statement best illustrates what I meant by “recycled nonsense” in my tweet. It explicitly states that people of BiH are as divided as they have ever been. Think about that for a second. Mr. Grodsky contends we are as divided today as we were, let’s say, in November 1993, the month in which Sarajevo was enduring its worst month under siege, the Old Bridge in Mostar was brought down by Croatian artillery fire, fighting raged between Bosniaks around Velika Kladusa, thousands were being imprisoned and tortured in detention camps, hundreds of thousands expelled from their homes. Or that we are as divided as we were in 1997, two years after the war ended but there still was no freedom of movement and my hometown of Prijedor was ruled by the mayor Milomir Stakic and the chief of police Simo Drljaca, both indicted for war crimes. Or as divided as in 2002, the year I was finally able to reclaim my house from the Serb family that had taken it. I have no illusions about the degree of mistrust that still exists among people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mistrust wthat is continuously fomented by political agendas of the ruling nationalist parties, which directly profit from the paralysis and apathy that result from fear and division they sow. But, despite this imposed discourse of animosity, constructed mainly around the unresolved traumas from the war, and the constant manufacturing of crisis that comes from the political establishment and media under their control, no serious analyst or academic would ignore the evidence that Bosnia and Herzegovina has progressed and that there is a degree of solidarity among people at the grassroots level that was unimaginable in the past. Examples of how life organically bridges these divisions are too numerous to list (and certainly not as “sexy” as the stream of news of mistrust and political conflict), but one of the most illustrative is when people crossed ethnic and entity lines to help each other during the floods in 2014. Sweeping and inaccurate generalizations like this are nothing but lazy characterizations that don’t distinguish between various manifestations of societal and political dynamics and entirely ignore the realities on the ground.

  1. In fact, according to a 2013 public opinion poll, just one in six residents of BiH feels that the three ethnic groups that live there – the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – have reached reconciliation.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Again, no serious academic would allow himself to imply that reconciliation can be measured by one-off public surveys of this kind. Mr. Grodsky doesn’t even explain what would reconciliation mean in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, if there ever was a project of reconciliation undertaken by the local leaders, let alone how would we measure it in the context of this country. I will not dwell on different definitions that we could, theoretically, be discussing here, or models of evaluating progress of reconciliation processes like the “reconciliation barometer” developed by the South Africa Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, since I can with full responsibility assert that Bosnia and Herzegovina never had a genuine, national reconciliation project. There is in fact nothing to measure. But that is not the only problem Mr. Grodsky has when he quotes the mentioned study. He asserts that only some 16.6% (one sixth or one in six of those polled) feel that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats have reached reconciliation. When one in fact reads the study, one finds that the question dealing with reconciliation in the study is much more complex, does not mention the three ethnic groups at all but in fact asks: “To what extent do you think that there has been a reconciliation in BiH and normalization of relations in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, from the end of the war until now?“ Mr. Grodsky fails to mention the element of the question that refers to “normalization of relations in the countries of the former Yugoslavia” which significantly broadens the scope of the question and crucially impacts the responses. And on top of it all, he ignores some 39% of those polled who responded that they believe that reconciliation in BiH and normalization of relations in the countries of the former Yugoslavia has been “partially achieved”. Which part? Reconciliation or normalization? Or perhaps a bit of both? If so, which bit? Again, I don’t think that anyone serious would rely on surveys of this kind when discussing processes as complex as reconciliation, but in presenting this inaccurate and oversimplified interpretation of the findings, Mr. Grodsky assumes, arrogantly in my view, that the reader will blindly trust him and not their own eyes.

reconciliation

  1. It would be easy to pass this sentiment off as what one former U.S. secretary of state called “ancient tribal, ethnic and religious rivalries.” But I believe it raises profound doubts about the ability of international justice to bring about a more peaceful world.

Another sweeping generalization that assumes that the purpose of international justice is to bring about a more peaceful world, and that the absence of reconciliation in BiH, as interpreted by Mr. Grodsky in the previous paragraph, brings into question it ability to do so. I do not think statements like this deserve a serious response, I quote it because I deem it illustrative of the tone of the entire article.

  1. As I demonstrate in my book,“The Costs of Justice,” transitional justice – the process of dealing with human rights abuses committed by a previous regime – is an inherently political process made even more contentious by taking it out of the country. The fallout is not just a lack of reconciliation, but also the constant threat of violence.

This simplified definition of transitional justice is inaccurate. I will not use the definition of the ICTJ, to avoid an impression of bias by quoting sources too close to me, but if we take the UN definition, we see it makes no mention of previous regimes. But let’s say that what Mr. Grodsky states here as definition of transitional justice was correct, the concept of transitional justice as such would be irrelevant to Bosnia and Herzegovina as there was never a change in the regime (that is one of our key problems) from that which has initiated and conducted the conflict. Furthermore, in all known definitions, transitional justice refers to processes associated with a society’s struggle to address the legacy of past abuses and as such cannot be “taken out of the country”. Some mechanisms can be international or hybrid in nature, but a transitional justice process itself cannot be dislocated in the way Mr. Grodsky implies. I don’t even know what to do with the claim that such “dislocation of transitional justice process” somehow generates a constant threat of violence. So I will leave that and try to deal with some related claims further down in the text.

  1. Ongoing resentment in BiH was highlighted by two recent events.

First was the fall election of a Serbian genocide denier, Mladen Grujicic, as mayor of Srebrenica – a town where more than 8,000 Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, were systematically killed in 1995.

Next came the Bosniak response: a February request for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to review its 2007 ruling that cleared the neighboring state of Serbia of complicity in genocide during the war.

Mr. Grodsky asserts that the application for revision of the ICJ judgment came as a response to the victory of Mladen Grujicic in municipal elections in Srebrenica. This is plain false. I do not intend to try and understand Mr. Grodsky’s motives for implying this causal link between the two events, but will debunk it with a simple fact: the work of the team tasked by the Bosniak member of BiH Presidency Bakir Izetbegovic to prepare the application for revision of the ICJ started at least in mid-2015 (Izetbegovic contends much earlier, but there is no evidence of this) and Grujicic won the elections more than a year later, in October 2016. These two events are both significant in any effort to try and understand political and societal dynamics in the country, but to claim that one was a response to the other is laughable.

  1. Lack of reconciliation in BiH comes despite – or perhaps because of – a major international effort to ensure justice in the region.

Completely incorrect. The lack of reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina comes from the continuation of politics of conflict by the ruling nationalist parties, rooted in genocide denial and myths of victimhood. The notion that “a major international effort to ensure justice” – meaning the ICTY – has caused the lack of reconciliation is in fact the backbone of the revisionist narrative central to the mentioned political agendas.

  1. The ICTY’s establishment in 1993 was greeted by human rights advocates as the harbinger of a new era of justice. At the time, transitional justice scholars preached itsnumerous benefits.

The ICTY was established in 1993 as the conflict raged. In fact, some of the worst atrocities – including the Srebrenica genocide and crimes against humanity in Kosovo – were committed after its establishment, in 1995 and 1999. The ICTY was not established as a transitional justice mechanism but in response to the threat to international peace (therefore the UN SC derived its power to establish the first international war crimes court since Nuremberg and Tokyo from the Chapter 7 of the UN Charter). Some contend it was a fig leaf for the international community’s unwillingness to act militarily to stop the atrocities. Be that as it may, it certainly was not established as a mechanism of transitional justice process in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And I am not sure which transitional justice scholars preached its “numerous benefits”, but it certainly is not Neil Kritz in his seminal work “How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes,” which Mr. Grodsky links to here. For a simple reason: Kritz does not mention former Yugoslavia nor ICTY once in over 1500 pages of his three volumes.

 

  1. The fact that post-conflict countries frequently lack institutions strong or independent enough to pursue criminal prosecutions on their own makes international mechanisms indispensable. Indeed, BiH’s inability to carry out itsown criminal trials for a decade and a half points to a real need for international courts.

Here Mr. Grodsky moves from the position that “international justice effort” prevents reconciliation and foments “a constant threat of violence” to one where such effort is “indispensable”. Inconsistencies like that aside, the stated “BiH’s inability to carry out its own criminal trials for a decade and a half” is, yet again, simply false. Courts in BiH have conducted war crimes trials during and after the conflict at various levels and with various degrees of competence. In January 1996, a special mechanism titled “Rules of the Road” was established to prevent politicization of war crimes cases. In 2005 the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina was established as an example of how national institutions, with international assistance, can in fact conduct trials in accordance with the highest international standards. All this happened within Mr. Grodsky’s “decade and a half”. The amusing thing here is that to back up his false claim he quotes an ICTJ report about the work of the Work Crimes Chamber, which, again, was established in 2005.

 

  1. TheICTY cost more than US$1 billion, or between $10 million and $15 million for each person accused. Various countries, including the United States, footed the bill. And yet, rather than improve relations in the region, the ICTY may have incited tensions

Here, Mr. Grodsky moves back again. Suddenly, the ICTY is not “indispensable” any more, but is back to being a troublemaker which “may have incited tensions. The “real need for international courts” due to “the BiH’s inability to conduct trials” from the previous paragraph has perished under the price tag of $10-15 million for each person accused. To explain his pivot, Mr. Grodsky resorts to another quote, this time of – himself. And although I find this kind of calculus in which price tag is attached to justice for mass atrocity highly problematic (especially when invoking the US contribution to the UN budget from which the ICTY was funded, probably to appeal to the US audiences of his piece, which as we know are particularly sensitive these days to the ways their tax money is spent abroad), Mr. Grodsky could have at least done his math right: if ICTY’s budget was $1.2 billion and it had 161 accused, the cost per accused person is some 7.5 million and not 10-15 as he states.

 

  1. Little surprise then that only 8 percent of those polled in BiH in 2013 felt the ICTY had done a good job facilitating reconciliation.

I have dealt already with Mr. Grodsky’s use of public opinion surveys in measuring reconciliation, and the same applies here. In addition, in presenting this data as relevant, Mr. Grodsky yet again omits a key part of the question that was asked in the survey. The original question asks: “Have ICTY/BiH courts contributed to reconciliation?” He makes no mention of the fact that BiH courts feature in the question, which significantly impacts the responses. And again, he fails to mention 30.3% of those surveyed who responded with “partly”.

ICTYreconciliation

And this is where I got tired of responding to paragraph after paragraph of this article constructed with “academic rigour, journalistic flair”. As I was writing this, a friend sent me a video by Ziyah Gafic, and award winning photographer, which in nine minutes tells the story of the war in Bosnia. It is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the war, event that has irreversibly change my country and all our lives, and such content is shared today among Bosnians more than usually. As the harrowing images of utter devastation of my country, life and death in war, and its seemingly unsurmountable legacy flashed before my eyes, my energy to respond to Mr. Grodsky’s cavalier assertions such as that the ”African states have accused the ICC of the same bias Yugoslavs attributed to the ICTY,” just drained out of me. What is the point, anyway? The frustration I, as a Bosnian, feel in reading such (mis)characterizations of my country and my experience will surely not change the approach of academics like Mr. Grodsky or affect the editorial standards of publications such as The Conversation. They will continue doing what they do, while I, together with millions of others who come from countries affected by experiences of conflict and societal rupture, will remain nothing more than useful objects of research and numbers in public surveys that support premises of their research.

 

p.s. Those who know me and my recent efforts to illuminate the public debate around the application for revision of the ICJ case against Serbia, my insistence on transparency and an argued discussion, without mystification and cavalier remarks, will know how deeply disheartening, on a very personal level, is Mr. Grodsky’s last paragraph, in which he lectures an entire nation. I refrain from commenting on it at all, it speaks for itself.

Back in Bosnia, the ICJ last month rejected the Bosniak request on the grounds it did not come from all three members of the country’s tripartite presidency. In other words, the very lack of reconciliation between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats that prompted the initial appeal now makes that appeal impossible. It is ironic that Bosniaks still feel the need to turn to international justice mechanisms for redress. After all, international justice may bear some blame for the predicament they’re in today.

 

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