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New Cornerstones of Balkan Peace

Back in March, the European Union brokered an agreement between the Balkan states of Serbia and Kosovo to normalize ties. The deal left observers clinging to an uncertain hope. Twenty-five years after the two states broke apart in the violent fragmenting of what was then Yugoslavia, they remain tense neighbors. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić backed the accord but withheld his signature (Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence).

But yesterday the two sides took their first step beyond mere good faith. Meeting in Brussels, Mr. Vučić and his counterpart, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, pledged to work together to locate people who disappeared during the 1998-99 war. This victims-first focus shows how empathy and truth are forerunners to justice and peace. It acknowledges dignity over ethnic identity.

“Resolving the issue of Missing Persons is not only a humanitarian obligation,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief mediator, said in a statement after a meeting of the Balkan leaders in Brussels. “It is also a crucial enabler for reconciliation and trust between people.”About these ads

Smaller than Connecticut with a population that is more than 90% ethnic Albanian, Kosovo split from Serbia in a war that lasted 17 months and claimed more than 13,000 lives. The EU cataloged 6,065 cases of people who went missing. Of those, 1,621 remain unresolved. They are presumed to be dead and their remains scattered across the region in unmarked graves.

The declaration signed yesterday opens by emphasizing “the importance of resolving the fate of the remaining Missing Persons to bring closure to the suffering of their loved ones.” That point rests on lessons learned in countries like South Africa, Colombia, and Cyprus, which grounded transitional justice in empathy for the families and communities of victims of conflict. Those experiences showed the broader healing effect of comforting individuals by removing the uncertainty of what happened to their missing loved ones.

Finding out what happened to missing persons “is a precondition for sustainable peace,” wrote Grażyna Baranowska, a Polish law professor, in a study on Kosovo and Cyprus. She notes that families of missing persons are more apt to embrace each other across enemy lines. Their desire for truth over revenge “can result in a broader interaction” toward peace between post-conflict communities.

That was a key insight for Juan Manuel Santos, the former president of Colombia who brokered peace in his country’s longest-running guerrilla war in 2016. “The victims have taught me that the capacity to forgive can overcome hatred and rancor,” he said.

Yesterday’s agreement has been long coming. Serbia backed a “draft agreement” in October 2020 to set up a joint commission on missing persons in Kosovo. Belgrade took a similar step two years earlier in Croatia, where more than 1,800 cases remained unresolved. But years later, Croatia was still accusing Serbia of failing to share vital information held by its security services.

Now, with its membership in the EU pending, Belgrade has an opportunity to demonstrate where its values lie. The agreement requires both sides to cooperate on missing persons cases through a joint commission chaired by the EU.

“Victims must be placed at the very center of this process,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Fabián Salvioli said of the Serbia-Kosovo peace process in December. “The exaltation of nationalistic and ethnic-related sentiments for political motivation … can lead to a recurrence of violence.”

The world’s lessons in post-conflict empathy continue to mount. If they take root in Kosovo, they may blossom in other societies – like Ethiopia – now seeking their way out of ethnic or religious strife.

Source: The Christian Science Monitor