Statement by H. E. Ambassador Ivan Šimonović, Permanent Representative of the Republic of Croatia at the United Nations Security Council Open Debate on “Transitional Justice: a Building Block Towards Sustaining Peace”

New York, 13 February 2020

Mr. President,     

We commend Belgium for convening this open debate. We also thank today’s briefers for sharing their insights and experiences.

Croatia aligns itself with the statement delivered by the European Union on behalf of its Member States, and I would like to make some additional remarks in my national capacity.

Mr. President,

Countries in almost every region of the world have their own story of a transition that was followed by the pursuit of transitional justice. Transitional societies have developed a range of ways of dealing with past atrocities and abuses. Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to transitional justice and every approach must be based on the needs and objectives of the specific social context, the richness of experience, if properly systemized, can help relevant actors in decision-making towards sustaining peace and avoiding relapse into conflict.

The definition of transitional justice, as contained in the UN Secretary-General’s report on the rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies from 2004 (S/2004/61) is broad enough to help us systemize the wealth of individual experiences. It incorporates four essential elements: truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence.

Mr. President,

Let me address some Croatian transitional justice experiences and try to draw some lessons from them.

If I would need to single out one most important lesson, it is that the transitional justice is a process that takes time.

Transitional justice activities in Croatia started already in the first half of nineties during the conflict in former Yugoslavia, but some are still going on now, quarter of a century later.

Both national and international criminal proceedings against some alleged war crimes perpetrators started during the conflict, but also continued long after its end.

Croatia was a strong supporter of the establishment of the ICTY. We have placed our trust in the Tribunal to serve as an impartial international justice institution that will help to establish truth, punish the worst war crimes perpetrators, provide justice for the victims, and shield populations from the future brutalities. Although it did not deliver as much as we optimistically hoped for, the Tribunal played an important role in giving voice to the victims. It has demonstrated that crimes will not go unpunished, and that the international community has found a means through which it can react. This was confirmed by the fact that, following the ICTY, other ad hoc tribunals and the International Criminal Court were established learning from ICTY’s best practices, as well as shortcomings.

Croatia’s judicial system has also made significant advances in its ability and willingness to deal with war crimes. The public opinion attitude towards war crimes also evolved. Some initial one sided views have been gradually replaced by the universalist paradigm that all crimes should be punished, no matter of the affiliation of victims, nor the perpetrators. The clear lesson is that if in heat of the moment some mistakes are made, we must be brave enough to acknowledge it and correct them. 

For various reasons, including cultural ones, it may take a long time for some victims to speak up and ask for help, if they do it at all. It specially concerns victims of sexual violence. Transitional justice includes also an acknowledgment that victims have been harmed and they are entitled to an effective remedy and adequate reparation. In Croatia, some victims of sexual violence, their families and communities are still coping with the devastating and lasting consequences. Therefore, in 2015 Croatian parliament passed The Act on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence during the Military Aggression against Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War that grants reparations which may include financial compensation, monthly stipend, access to free counselling, as well as legal and medical aid. These benefits can be obtained through an administrative process and a court sentence is not required, which makes reparations faster more accessible. The response of victims was good and a number of them were finally compensated. Lesson learned: to be able to compensate victims effectively, we need a victim centred approach and we should tailor restitution mechanisms accordingly.

Mr. President,

Let me now move from Croatian experiences to the ongoing global challenges. In many conflict and post conflict societies “Peace or justice” dilemma is still very real. Activating accountability mechanisms can put in jeopardy peace processes in situations where the perpetrators of atrocities are still in positions of power. Moreover, criminal proceedings which do not assure certain standards of rule of law are likely to be one sided, politicised and quickly discredited.

On the other hand, impunity and lack of justice for the victims increase likelihood that atrocities will be committed again, and again. Experience teaches us that justice has its costs, but that not providing it is even more costly. However, the costs of justice are immediate and the costs for not providing it lay further in the future.

The dilemma between peace and justice was raised, and in my view very successfully addressed, during the UN Secretary General’s senior advisers retreat, convened by Ban Ki Moon a decade ago. After a fierce debate, a view prevailed that to achieve peace, sometimes criminal accountability of perpetrators in positions of power may have to wait. However, this is acceptable only if some other elements of transitional justice process start immediately and there is a firm commitment that at the end perpetrators will be brought to justice. 

Mr President, let me conclude. Comprehensive transitional justice policy, if designed and implemented with broad and inclusive participation, in line with the SC resolution 1325 and following resolutions, has the potential to provide recognition to victims, strengthen the rule of law, foster trust, empower women and promote social integration and reconciliation. It helps societies to heal and decreases likelihood of future conflicts.

However, transitional justice is a process. Sometimes we may have to be patient with its individual accountability part, but we should never quit. It may take decades but Bashir, Mladić and others who enjoyed impunity for their crimes while holding positions of power, have to be finally brought to justice!

Thank you.