To Be or Not to Be: Croatian Human Rights Activists’ Struggle to Account for Mass Atrocities


Throughout the 1990s the state of Yugoslavia dissolved, ravaged by horrendous conflicts across the region. Since, several retributive and restorative mechanisms to cope with past atrocities have been attempted. Only a few years ago, a regional fact-finding project was launched by several established human rights organizations in the area. Currently, this so called Coalition for RECOM is taking on shape, going through a process of consultations and meetings to define its institutional character and mandate. Much ink has been spilled (in the region, as well as elsewhere) on the effectiveness of trials v. reconciliatory efforts. However, instead of reiterating a conventional critique on whether the different attempts to deal with the past were effective and how they might be improved, I sketch a political topography1 of the changes of human rights law as well as the practices of its proponents in the continuous tight-rope walk between accountability efforts promoted by the judiciary and the role of human rights activists in advocating facts about mass atrocity and war crimes. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Croatia, I describe the evolution of human rights activism during and after the Balkan conflicts and explain some of the motivations of the regional fact-finding initiative RECOM. I argue that contrary to earlier activism, the current human rights advocacy is intrinsically linked and also shaped by the judicial efforts in post-conflict societies.

The recent phenomenon of institutionalizing a regional fact-finding body to account for past human rights violations and war crimes is the result of intertwined processes in which different transitional justice stakeholders—interacting on multiple levels, i.e. local, national and international—pursued different objectives to tackle the conundrum of how to best deal with the past. The following is a brief review of historical developments that help understand the recent trend of certain activists, practitioners and politicians alike, to complement current judicial efforts with restorative justice mechanisms.

Disparate legacies of the antiwar and peace campaign in the 1990s
The outbreak of violence in the region in the early 1990s sparked a wave of peace activism, which quickly split into different factions after the conflicts, but was initially fueled by human rights defenders who had been engaged in civil society activities since the 1980s. In fact, in spite of Marshall Josip Broz Tito’s efforts to homogenize post-World-War-II Yugoslavia, coined by the Communist party slogan ‘brotherhood and unity’ (Ramet 2006, 5-11), the country’s socio-economic, political and cultural diversity became also visible in different hotbeds of activism when the Yugoslav crisis and tensions started to develop more intensely2 in the 1980s after the leader’s death. As a case in point, Mladina (a political radical magazine), Pankriti (a punk band) and NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst or New Slovenian Art) are some of the examples that constituted driving vectors of a new social movement in the Slovenian Republic of Yugoslavia (Stubbs 1996, 4). In the Ljubljana trial, or the Proces proti četverici (the Trial against the Four), for instance, four men (some of which were employed by the provocative magazine Mladina) were arrested in 1984 for publicizing sensitive military documents found at the Mladina offices. While this incident boosted the publication’s reputation in Slovenia and across Yugoslavia, it paradoxically underlines the growing pacifist support to counter rising national tendencies during this period and increasing Slovenian aspirations for independence from the federation (Kox 2005, 71-77). The distant geographical location of the peripherally situated republics of Slovenia and Croatia compared to the Yugoslav capital Belgrade in the Serbian Republic–which was the Yugoslav powerhouse in the east–has furthermore enhanced these trends.

Carried by political activism and pacifist movements of the 1980s in the Western Balkans, two key figures in launching a Croatian peace and non-violence movement at the outbreak of the war in 1991 were Katarina Kruhonja and Vesna Teršelić.3 Both of them have been awarded a peace and human rights award, the Right Livelihood Award, for their work in 1998. The latter, of Slovenian descent, was instrumental in setting up the Antiwar Campaign of Croatia (AWCC)4 in 1991, which today, consists of a network of over two dozen member organizations. AWCC engages, among other things, in educational activities for nonviolent conflict transformation, human rights protection, social reconstruction and reconciliation, support for refugees and displaced persons. In particular, it aims at acting as a spokesperson and missing link between refugees and governments and to provide practical conflict resolution training (Božičević 2010). These peace-building activities, fueled by the steadfast commitment of the two committed women, were only possible, however, thanks to a supportive, young and dynamic network of activists, who lend their help and support to this cause.5 The second key figure, Kruhonja, who is a physician, specialized in nuclear medicine from Osijek, eventually created the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights in Osijek in the East Slavonia region of Croatia in 1992. According to her vision, she believes that

We, as citizens or members of people’s organisations, can preserve and nourish basic principles needed for long-term efforts aimed at transforming a totalitarian and war-torn society into a democratic one.6

While her words emphasize the political engagement and grassroots efforts in order to bring about changes in society from within, certain authors have been more critical about conflict resolution and non-violence activism, arguing that the restraint political interpretation of such activism would result in a lack of engagement with the political party sphere (Denitch 1994). The current interactions of this generation of activists on the local, national, regional and international level with lawmakers, practitioners, scholars and other activists illustrates that these concerns were unfounded. Notwithstanding, the early main goal of the AWCC, to stop the war, could not be maintained in the long run, as the members of the coalition pursued diverging sociopolitical goals (Dvornik 1992). While Kruhonja’s center was originally part of the AWCC, it eventually became an independent body. The large number of activities not only in the city of Osijek, but also across the country and the region, explains this need for a local anchorage to work effectively. While it still remains associated to the AWCC, many other members of the coalition also pursued their own sociopolitical goals, leaving behind a loosely structured network.7

One of those organizations engaged in activities focusing on war crimes, human rights violations and mass atrocities, is Documenta Center for Dealing with the Past. It has been created in the mid-1990s to respond to growing desire of victims that their case ought to be heard and treated instead of remaining silent. In fact, retributive justice mechanisms to cope with the past, notably the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, despite its great global impact on and model character for human rights and criminal law, has only partially fulfilled its mandate to help war-torn and post-conflict societies in the region transition.8 The legalistic influence of the international tribunal in the Balkans, however, was and still remains very strong. Hence, the goal of activists was not to replace the quest for justice with a model of restorative justice.9 Instead, over the years, with the rise of retributive justice mechanisms in the region (not only the UN ad hoc tribunal in the Netherlands, but also some domestic efforts to account for mass atrocities), human rights activists shifted strategies and adapted to these new conditions.

While political activism remained still key, the omnipotent influence of the legal field with regards to past war crimes issues incited human rights activists to develop a strategy that allowed them to act and move increasingly in a rational-legal space to employ Weber’s logic of authority based on legal rationality and legitimacy of an institutional structure.

Emerging fact-finding efforts to deal with the past and raising victims’ voices
The issue of improving the relationship between law and society might not lie in more personnel, better strategies and on-site presence of the judiciary system’s public relations strategies, but in the way that those who suffered most during the conflicts, are integrated into efforts to cope with the past. The activities of several non-profit organizations—that often started working at the outbreak of violence in the early 1990s10 or shortly after—demonstrate how victims have received a voice in transitional justice processes in the Balkans.11 In 2006, three established non-profit organizations in the region, the Humanitarian Law Center (Serbia), Documenta (Croatia), and the Research and Documentation Center (Bosnia and Herzegovina)12 , convened a meeting to discuss the prospects of an independent regional commission that investigates and discloses the facts about war crimes and other serious human rights violations on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, called RECOM (Coalition for RECOM 2009).13 Due to the still highly politicized landscape of war-crime-related issues in the region, the founders of the initiative stress the importance of establishing a platform that offers victims an opportunity to express themselves and put a damper on the relativization of any crimes against humanity by local and national authorities or justification of “crimes committed against opposing sides in the conflict” (Ibid.). Such an initiative is the more important, as other transitional justice mechanisms, i.e. international and domestic courts have only been partially successful in coping with the past.

The idea behind RECOM, according to its advocates, is to provide a mechanism that takes into account the context of the past conflict. With over half a dozen of countries involved in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, it becomes evident that dealing with war crimes issues does not stop at national borders, but goes beyond the sovereign territory of the current states. Hence, this regional geopolitical issue requires a process that enables to address human-rights-related issues from an interregional and transnational perspective, particularly when it comes to the prosecution of alleged war crimes perpetrators. The recent Glavaš case illustrates how the hesitant cooperation between different countries in the region interferes with and slows down the justice process. In this case, Branimir Glavaš, a former Croatian legislator who was convicted by a Croatian court for war crimes during the defense of Osijek in 1991, fled Croatia for Bosnia—relying on his Bosnian citizenship and Bosnian legislation on non-extradition of its nationals—to evade conviction after his immunity was lifted by the Croatian parliament in 2009. While Bosnian authority never extradited him, a petition of the Croatian Ministry of Justice to Bosnian authorities to carry out the conviction on Bosnian territory was received by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sentencing Glavaš to eight years of prison.14 While several countries in the region have signed bilateral extradition agreements, the clauses apply only to organized crime and states are still reluctant to extradite their own nationals with regard to war crimes committed during the conflicts in the 1990s (Barlovac 2010).15 It is exactly these nationalist and territorial hurdles that the RECOM initiative is trying to cope with.

The founders’ goals for the initiative are ambitious, but not unattainable. Yet, even if this mammoth project of dealing with the past across the region will not see the light of day in a concrete institutional and organizational form as intended by its supporters, the initiative has already helped generate a critical and necessary public debate on facing past mass atrocities and human rights violations in countries of the former Yugoslavia, such as Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, to only name a few. Moreover, the RECOM coalition partners have well-established programs on a national level that will continue to operate regardless the outcome of the regional commission.16 But what exactly are their common goals? As a coalition, they intend to create a space for victims to be heard in society, fueling sympathy and understanding, particularly from perpetrator groups. They also plan on creating a comprehensive database of victims to make an end to the perpetual politicization of the number of victims in the region. On legal and judicial matters, RECOM aspires to help war crimes prosecutors with evidence material, witness handling and search of the missing (Coalition for RECOM 2009).

Suffice it to say that certain objectives require a favorable political momentum–which until recently was a difficult situation to cope with in the region. And yet other planned activities compete with or at least take on the form of certain work of the judiciary, despite arguments of RECOM advocates that say otherwise. The above overview of early human rights activism and their struggles, the difficulties of the judiciary to cope with former war criminals and the grass-roots initiative of RECOM to deal with the past, have all shed light on the difficulties of civil society organizations in Croatia (and beyond and that advocate for transitional justice in post-conflict societies) to gain and sustain a momentum to confront past wrongdoings and abuses. Hence, combining institutional and temporal spaces in this brief analysis not only highlight recent obstacles human rights advocates face, but also demonstrate that some of these impediments have fueled an increasing need for alternative approaches to cope with the past. Although tectonic shifts have recently occurred with strong political symbolism for change17 it remains to be seen whether these developments are strong enough to generate a broader willingness to face the past in the region.

Arnaud Kurze is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science in the Department of Public and International Affairs at Mason and currently visiting fellow at Sciences Po (Paris) and has a research affiliation with in the Department of Political Science at the University of Zagreb (Croatia).



Barlovac, Bojana. 2010. “Croatia, Serbia on Cooperation in Fighting Crime.”, May 19.

Božičević, Goran. 2010. “Antiratni Čin Prkosa.” H-Alter, July 5.

Burt, Jo-Marie. 2009. “Guilty as Charged: The Trial of Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for Human Rights Violations.” International Journal of Transitional Justice 3 (3): 384.

Coalition for RECOM. 2009. Coalition for RECOM. Why RECOM?

Collins, Cath. 2006. “Grounding Global Justice: International Networks and Domestic Human Rights Accountability in Chile and El Salvador.” Journal of Latin American Studies 38: 711-38.

Denitch, Bogdan. 1994. “Seeds of Change in the Former Yugoslav States.” War Report 27: 6-7.

Dvornik, Srdjan. 1992. Croatia: The politics of the Yugoslav Breakup: War and Reconstruction in Yugoslavia. Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

Goldstein, Ivo. 1999. Croatia: A History. Trans. Nikolina Jovanovi. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.

Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell University Press.

Kelava, Marina. 2006. “Antiratna Kampanja Hrvatske: 15 Godina Poslje.” H-Alter, April 24.

Kox, John. 2005. Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties. New York: Routledge.

Kurze, Arnaud. 2010. “Bringing War Crimes Issues Back In: Croatia and the EU Enlargement Process.” South Slav Journal Vol. 19 (No. 3-4).

Ramet, Sabrina. 2006. The Three Yugoslavias: State-Building and Legitimation, 1918-2005. Indiana University Press.

Roht-Arriaza, Naomi. 2005. The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice In The Age Of Human Rights. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stubbs, Paul. 1996. “Nationalisms, Globalization and Civil Society in Croatia and Slovenia.” Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change 19 (1): 1-26.



  1. The term refers to a sociological analysis of specific actors who shape structural patterns in a given environment. []
  2. Other regionalist and local protest, e.g. the Kosovo question, have risen much earlier. []
  3. Other peace movements, in the Eastern parts of Yugoslavia, include the famous Candles for Peace Campaign in 1991 in Belgrade (Serbia), led by Serbian human rights activist Nataša Kandić. []
  4. Also referred to as ARK in Croatian, which stands for Anti Ratna Kampanja. []
  5. See interview with Vjeran Pavlaković, historian (University of Rijeka), and member of the RECOM for overview of human rights activism in Croatia. September 2010. []
  6. The Right Livelihood Award,, accessed 14 September 2010. []
  7. In 2006, AWCC’s 15th anniversary, its members, led by one of its founders, Vesna Teršelić, gathered in order to revive the organization’s political momentum and discuss the fate of its archives, in order to create an institutional memory and establish a legacy about the movement for future generations (Kelava 2006). The human rights house in Zagreb, Croatia, established in 2008 is yet another example of the diverging interests of each of the original AWCC members. While several non-governmental human rights organizations, most of which were part of the AWCC founders share a common space—a building located east of the Croatian capital’s center—the implemented programs by each NGO do not (or barely) overlap, ranging from past war crimes issues to present gender and equality problems in Croatia. []
  8. For a discussion on the impact of retributive justice in Croatia in the context of the European Union, see for instance (Kurze 2010). []
  9. Particularly, since the amnesiac political climate in Croatia vis-à-vis the recent war during the Tudjman era in the 1990s (Goldstein 1999, 13 and 14) limited not only the scope of interventions by human rights activists, but also their impact. []
  10. Cf. for instance the activities of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Serbia, that documents war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and promotes victims rights, based on various initiatives, at [accessed on December 5, 2009]. []
  11. Some political scientists have tinkered with sociological tools and network theory in the past to analyze transnational advocacy networks and trace the rise of human rights activists in the late 19th and 20th century (Keck and Sikkink 1998). Though indeed a seminal work, as Keck’s and Sikkink’s application of these tools to illustrate the interactive processes between civil society and states, it remains on a macro-level. This is partly because they try to tackle and illustrate a number of different social issues, including human rights, women’s rights and environmental issues. Additionally, their so-called ‘boomerang pattern’—a concept which describes the transnational relationship between activists in authoritarian states and civil society actors in democratic countries who put pressure on their own democratic governments to impose sanctions on repressive political institutions abroad in order to generate democratic transition (1998, 12)—ignores the autonomous character of  local NGOs. More recent research in transitional justice, however, has already stressed the need to point to these nuances (Roht-Arriaza 2005; Collins 2006; Burt 2009). Cath Collins, for instance, who examines transnational human rights activism and accountability for mass atrocity in Chile and El Salvador has argued that it “overstate[s] the extent of co-ordination and strategic collaboration between home and external accountability actors” (Collins 2006, 715). In vein with Collins analysis and contrary to the premises of Keck and Sikkink’s model recent fieldwork data illustrates that human rights activists in the Balkans maintain strong network ties among one another. Despite connections with and the support of international non-profit organizations and regional intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), local actors are skeptical as external players are seen as entities with their proper roadmap. Human rights organizations in various parts of Southeastern Europe, in addition to the support of Western non-profit organizations, have developed their own network structures with local and national social actors across the region in different transition contexts. They have engaged in different activities, sometimes taking on several roles at once, in order to face the past. These nuances are crucial when trying to understand the impact of activists in post-conflict states and merit further attention. []
  12. These various organizations have as their core mission to document and disclose facts about the human rights violations and war crimes committed during the 1990s to educate society and create a voice for victims.  Various forms of implementing this mission exist. Documenta, for instance, among other things, engages in commemorative culture, history teaching, and dealing with the past initiatives, thus emphasizing the interactive dialogue with society. As for the Research and Documentation Center, concentrates its work on documenting missing persons, and has published a comprehensive account of all the war victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Bosnian book of the dead (2009), as well as an interactive Google map that shows location, nature of the crime and number of victims. The Humanitarian Law Center, despite its involvement in commemorative culture, is known for its strong legal activities, providing support for victims in court and vis-à-vis state institutions. []
  13. The Coalition for RECOM, i.e. the initiative to create the regional body, currently comprises several hundreds of local and national NGOs from the following countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. []
  14. See the website of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina for more details on this case at [accessed on January 5, 2011]. []
  15. Hence, the EU has changed its enlargement candidacy requirements. Potential membership countries will have to accept extradition agreements of nationals before becoming a member. See for instance, Jungvirth, Goran. 2009. Glavas Case Highlights Impediment to Justice. TRI (Institute for War & Peace Reporting), 16 June., accessed 1 Sept. 2010. []
  16. See for instance programs by Documenta at or the Humanitarian Law Center [accessed on November 23, 2010]. []
  17. The first important political wave of change in the former Yugoslavia occurred in the early 2000s. Tudjman’s death in 1999 allowed the conservative nationalist era to end in which the narrative of the glorious homeland war to defend the young nation didn’t leave any room for committed war crimes and human rights violations. And Serbia’s notorious leader Milošević was booted out of power after his 2000 electoral defeat and rising protest from the streets after attempting to hold his grip to power (Ramet 2010, chap. 12 and 13). This tabula rasa with the past, however, was only the tip of the iceberg of a long process. Subsequent leaders willing to bring about change had and still have to face the old establishment occupying the political institutions and vehemently opposing transparency and efforts to cope with the past. Nonetheless, the new leaders in countries such as Croatia and Serbia, Ivo Josipovič the president of the Republic of Croatia (who serves his first term since February 2010), and Boris Tadić the president of the Republic of Serbia (in his second term, which started in February 2008), have both made important strides to foster a climate of rapprochement in the region. They represent a new political generation that has not been personally involved (be it directly or indirectly) in war crimes or human rights violations of the 1990s conflicts. []


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