What is Political Reconciliation? Reflections on Reconciliation after the Karadzic Trial

Colleen Murphy is Professor of Law, Philosophy and Political Science as well as Director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program. Re-posted from RECOM, found here in English and here in Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian.

By Colleen Murphy

In March 2016, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic guilty on 10 of 11 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. In particular, journalist and scholar Nidzara Ahmetasevic concluded, “In Bosnia now, we are as far away from reconciliation as we were before the Karadzic trial.”[2] Below, I unpack Ahmetasevic’s claim. I focus specifically on the divergent reactions to the Karadzic trial and conviction. Such reactions, I argue, signal an absence of the conditions that would make trust reasonable, and trust is a core component of political reconciliation.

By political reconciliation, I mean the process of rebuilding damaged political relationships.[3] Such repair has a complex set of requirements and entails both institutional and interpersonal changes.[4] Establishing the conditions that make trust reasonable is a key part of the process of political reconciliation, because of what trusting expresses. To trust an individual is to view that person in a particular way, a way that shapes how we interpret their actions and words, and on what words and actions of theirs we concentrate our attention[5] This particular way implies taking a hopeful view of the competence and will of the other. What competence we attribute to someone we trust will vary depending on the relationship in question; competence as a mother is not the same as competence as a citizen or government official. For citizens, basic competence includes the ability to follow the rules and norms that structure interaction among citizens and between citizens and officials. For officials, competence entails knowledge of their role-related responsibilities and rights, as well as recognition of the fact that they act in a public capacity, with the corresponding responsibility to take into account the good of a community when making official decisions. Competence also includes an ability to act on this knowledge. As with competence, the will we attribute to those we trust varies. The robust positive good will towards their children we attribute to trusted parents is different from the more neutral lack of ill will we attribute to trusted citizens and officials. 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 a basic expectation of ‘trust responsiveness.’ That is, to trust is to expect the trusted person to be moved to prove reliable, to act in accordance with our expectations, and not to 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 can express respect and a commitment to reciprocity. It expresses respect, because it implies the presumption of fellow citizens and officials as being competent, basically decent and committed to fair play. And it reflects a commitment to reciprocity, insofar as we take the presumptive view of others we would like to have them take of ourselves. To be trust-responsive is respectful because it implies the right of others to make moral demands of us. In being trust-responsive we are also acting in a manner in which we hope others will act reciprocally.

Political trust is absent following war and repression. Deep distrust is the most typical and, indeed, reasonable attitude to adopt. In the midst of war, a presumptive lack of ill will can make one vulnerable to being killed. 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 presume the at least basic decency and competence of officials and citizens, and to expect that officials and citizens will prove trust-responsive.

Reactions to the Karadzic trial demonstrate that reconciliation among Bosnians is distant, in part because they point to the absence of conditions that would make such trust as a default response reasonable. One necessary condition for the presumption of the absence of ill will to be reasonable is acknowledgement of past wrongdoing. Acknowledgement entails recognizing past actions and recognizing them as morally wrong. Acknowledgement communicates where the lines for permissible and impermissible conduct should be drawn, and the recognition of such lines on the part of those who are doing the acknowledging. It 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.

A commonly shared view of the reactions to the Karadzic trial and verdict is that they reflect “the same ideas pervading local politics.”[6] 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.[7] In the words of President of the War Veterans Association of Republika Srpska, Milomir Savicic, “’I am disappointed with the justification of the verdict. That draconian punishment is based on very weak evidence.’”[8] Mladen Bosić, head of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), stated “The Hague tribunal has once again shown that it is a political court, the politically based verdicts were handed down to all Serb leaders from Serbia, [Bosnia’s autonomous] Republika Srpska and Croatia.”[9]

What is telling is what such reactions omit. Setting aside the question of Karadzic’s particular role, missing from such statements is any recognition that Serbian forces committed any wrongdoing whatsoever during the Bosnian War. Instead, there is scepticism expressed about the evidence of killing, torture, mass rapes and genocide – scepticism which can be interpreted as denial that such wrongs took place. By providing no evidence of acknowledgement of wrongdoing, such reactions also provide no evidence that it is reasonable to believe similar wrongdoing will not happen again in the future.

Such reactions also compound the already deep scepticism among victims and members of their families about the possibility of ever witnessing proper acknowledgement of the wrongs committed. 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. A mother and widow from Srebrenica, Hatidza Mehmedovic, complained, “This judgment is a reward for Karadžić.”[10] Saja Coric from Mostar reacted, “The whole of Republika Srpska is like a mass grave… we are still searching for our kids… and they claim this is not genocide.”[11] Prior to the verdict, Mirsad Duratovic, who survived the Omarska concentration camp, stated, “’If the judges fail to convict Karadžić for genocide in 1992 in Prijedor, it will be a slap in the face of the victims. Everything else will be a reward for Karadzic and Republika Srpska.’”[12] Underlying such reactions is the anticipation of disappointment and the expectation of continuing denial with respect to the wrongs done and the causes of such wrongdoing.

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. Establishing such post-war conditions requires examining the ideologies, institutions and norms that made possible normalized collective and political wrongdoing, as well as the consequences of past wrongdoing, such as ethnic cleansing, that impede political interaction predicated on respect and reciprocity.[13]

The author is a Professor of Law, Philosophy and Political Science as well as Director of the Women and Gender in Global Perspectives Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is author of the books ‘The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice’ (Cambridge University Press, 2016, forthcoming), and ‘A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation’ (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[1] I thank John Tasioulas and Riada Ašimović Akyol for their comments on an earlier draft.

[2] Nidzara Ahmetasevic, “The Radovan Karadzic verdict will change nothing,” Al Jazeera March 26, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/03/radovan-karadzic-verdict-change-bosnia-serbia-160327093504907.html

[3] For an overview of different senses of reconciliation see Linda Radzik and Murphy, Colleen, “Reconciliation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2015/entries/reconciliation/

[4] See Colleen Murphy, A Moral Theory of Political Reconciliation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[5] Karen Jones, “Trust as an Affective Attitude,” Ethics 107 (1996), 4-25.

[6] Ahmetasevic, “The Radovan Karadzic verdict.”

[7] Julian Borger, “Radovan Karadžić’s sentence for Bosnia genocide exposes continuing divisions,” March 24, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/24/radovan-karadzics-sentence-for-bosnia-genocide-exposes-continuing-divisions

[8] Denis Dzidic, “Karadzic Verdict: Mixed Reactions Reflect Divided Bosnia,” Balkan Insight, March 24, 2016, http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/karadzic-verdict-mixed-reactions-reflect-divided-society-03-24-2016

[9] Julian Borger and Owen Bowcott, “’Is the tribunal not ashamed?’ Karadžić sentence angers victims,” The Guardian, March 24, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/24/radovan-karadzic-hague-tribunal-sentence-survivors-victims-reaction

[10] Borger, “Radovan Karadžić’s sentence.”

[11] Dzidic, “Karadzic Verdict.”

[12] Borger and Bowcott, “’Is the tribunal not ashamed?’ https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/24/radovan-karadzic-hague-tribunal-sentence-survivors-victims-reaction

[13] On this see Colleen Murphy, The Conceptual Foundations of Transitional Justice (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

Backlash in East-Central Europe? What Happened to the Promise of 1989?

On February 27, 2015, John Feffer, the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, gave a talk that was part of the European Union Center’s Jean Monnet lecture series and co-sponsored by REEEC entitled “Backlash in East-Central Europe: What Happened to the Promise of 1989?” As the title of his lecture suggests, he attempted to explain the disillusionment with the post-socialist system that is taking place in several countries of East-Central Europe, such as Hungary, Bulgaria, and the successor states to the former Yugoslavia. Many of these countries are now members of the European Union and NATO. In terms of economic growth and democratization, the post-1989 transformations  have been remarkable. Yet many in the region – politicians and everyday citizens alike – perceive the promises of 1989 as unrealized, and there is widespread dissatisfaction with the current system. In the face of broadly emerging Euroscepticism, some leaders – most prominently Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary  – have blatantly acted to undo aspects of the post-1989 transition to economic and political liberalism.

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

John Feffer describing the difficulties of the post-socialist transition in East-Central Europe

Mr. Feffer attempted to put these developments in context. He had traveled to the region in 1990, and interviewed over 250 local leaders and activists on the changes that were happening, specifically concerning the Roma, women and the workplace, and Yugoslavia. In order to gauge public perceptions of change, he traveled back to the region in 2012-13 as an Open Society Fellow to re-interview those with whom he had originally spoken, as well as many new people from civil and political society.

Mr. Feffer began his lecture with two stories illustrating contradictory experiences during the transition from communism. One was of Bogdan from Poland, who experienced a typical progression of shock, adjustment, and prosperity – or the “Golden Age” of the post-transition period. Mr. Feffer countered Bogdan’s story with that of Miroslav from Bulgaria, who had been a minority rights activist but left the country after facing extreme political isolation and disillusionment with the transition. Together, their stories create a picture of two co-existing worlds in today’s East-Central Europe – one of prosperity and a successful transition to economic/political liberalism, the other of widespread disillusionment and dissatisfaction complemented by strong anti-liberal trends.

Several factors indicate this latter world, which Feffer referred to as the “non-Golden Age.” One factor consists of public opinion polls, in which people say that their experience is worse today than it was under communism. There are also problems associated with mass emigration from these countries, often of the young and educated (i.e., those most capable of enacting further change). Coinciding with these trends is the rise of intolerant nationalistic parties, who take advantage of disillusionment in the region. Mr. Feffer lastly described the new push towards “illiberal democracy,” in which some countries have seen polar transitions from liberal ideas and parties towards models based on Russia or China.

If the above serve as indicators for what has happened, the following attributes of the transition help contextualize the situation that exists now. Mr. Feffer described disappointment (i.e., failed expectations), economic hardship (i.e., shock and unemployment), justice deferred (i.e., neglect of rule of law and immunity to those who benefited from insider privatization), and political backlash (i.e., a leftist critique of economics mixed with far right politics). Mr. Feffer argued that the left has been largely discredited in the region today because of its communist connections and conduct after 1989, while those from the far right have become the main actors on a stage of bad economics and politics. One such example is the rise of anti-Islamism in the region. Those who are not necessarily racist still often support overtly racist parties because of other unrelated hardships.

Even though most of the countries in the region are now full members of the EU, Euroscepticism is on the rise. Superficial images of progress (e.g., infrastructure development and EU membership itself) belie local disenchantment with the European Union and the perception that the expected benefits of EU membership have not manifested. Another important point Mr. Feffer made is that many of these countries are relatively conservative, and therefore, their stance on issues such as women’s and gay rights lead Western Europe to regard them as fostering “social illiberalism.”

Mr. Feffer did not try to argue that the liberal project has completely failed in East-Central Europe because the people there now have a degree of agency which they previously lacked. Rather, he suggested that there were flaws in the liberal project to begin with – even with Poland, considered the EU’s success story. In Poland, Mr. Feffer learned from his interviews that even those who favored the Balcerowicz Plan of rapid liberalization still admitted that the plan should have paid more attention to those left behind. Those who were left behind the most in the region were the Roma. Mr. Feffer described their situation as simply being a process of “uninterrupted shock,” consisting of widespread discrimination and extremely high unemployment.

However, Mr. Feffer concluded by arguing that these trends – disillusionment, economic problems, and a return to conservatism – are ultimately not peculiar to East-Central Europe. Instead, he saw them occurring throughout Europe, especially concerning debt issues and austerity. Furthermore, Euroscepticism and disaffection with politics are also happening in Western Europe, not just in the former socialist states. He described those sentiments in terms of a “pendulum swing.” Whereas there was wide support for liberalism in the 1990s, the pendulum now swings the opposite way and will likely shift again in the future. This was his larger argument, but the trends have been particularly acute in the places where a significant many perceive the promises of 1989 and the post-socialist transition to be currently unrealized.

To see a video recording of Mr. Feffer’s discussion, please follow the link to the EUC article on their website: http://eucenterillinois.blogspot.com/2015/03/backlash-in-east-central-europe-what.html

Alana Holland is a second-year MA student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies. Her research interests include the Holocaust, modern Russian and East European history, memory studies, and the post-socialist and post-Soviet transitions. She is currently writing her thesis on themes related to the Soviet liberation of the Majdanek concentration and death camp, and will pursue her PhD in History in fall 2015.

Violence Overload? Promoting Sensitivity to Human Suffering: the Case of Bosnia

By Dr. Rob Whiting

This summer the REEEC Curriculum Development Workshop (CDW) focused on the difficult issue of teaching genocide without creating stereotypes.  The Bosnian experience provided the content focus of the workshop.  Over the course of 4 days (June 19-22), the participants wrestled with how to put the events of Srebrenica, Bosnia in context, and how to explain to students why such things happen, without making excuses for the perpetrators.

The workshop began with a presentation and discussion on Sunday evening led by Brenda Trofanenko, an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Culture, Community and Education at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto.   Her talk focused on the challenges of teaching the topic of genocide in a comparative format.  These challenges stem from the dual needs to address genocide as a specific type of event, with a clear legal definition, while at the same time respecting the specific experiences of the communities that have experienced genocide.  All the participants agreed that a key part of the process needs to involve understanding the local and global context in which these events happen, and understanding that genocide is not something separate and unique, but an extreme example of the broader spectrum of human conflict.  The keynote presentation also set the tone for the workshop by making the discussion among the participants a central focus of the evening.

The next three days followed a general pattern of content focused presentations by University of Illinois faculty and students in the morning and working sessions in the afternoon. Elana Jakel, a PhD candidate in the Department of History, researched supplemental readings and other materials provided to the participants. Judith Pintar, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, presented an overview of the social, economic, and political background to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and introduced the teachers to various resources available for teaching about the war.  Judith also introduced the teachers to several books, films, and video clips that could be used to teach about the war in Bosnia, and in keeping with the theme of the workshop, reinforced that it was important to use more than one source to present different perspectives.   Richelle Bernazolli, a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography, provided background on the development of international law regarding genocide, and the European Union’s efforts to establish legal institutions to deal with the issue in the future.  She also provided information on the use of propaganda in the Bosnian war, and how it was used to shape the views of both people in Bosnia, and the population of the world about what was going on during the war.  Rob Whiting, a recent PhD graduate from the Department of Geography, and a veteran of the IFOR and SFOR peacekeeping missions, provided background on the International Community’s role in the war in Bosnia, as well as background on why Srebrenica is the only incident from the Bosnian war to be officially recognized as a genocide.

A key part of the workshop’s success was the work of Adam Schmitt, a middle school social studies teacher at Next Generation School in Champaign.  Adam led the afternoon work sessions with the teachers, and kept the morning sessions focused on developing ideas about how to integrate the content into workable classroom materials.  Taking the content of the presenters, and combining it with the input from the participating teachers, Adam developed several lesson plan outlines which were discussed in detail on Wednesday afternoon.  Overall, all the participants felt the workshop was a very good first step in developing useful tools for teachers to introduce students to the particularly complex and difficult subject of genocide in Bosnia.

In order to share this valuable content with a broader audience, REEEC is developing the workshop content for online dissemination.  Stay posted for more information on this exciting project.


As a federally designated National Resource Center, REEEC creates training and educational materials for K-12 teachers and community college instructors. The Center’s programs assist educators in developing standards-based curriculum that is designed to teach students about geography, culture, government, and history through engaging content.  Learn more at http://www.reeec.illinois.edu/teachers/.