Reflections on the December Workshop

Reflections on

“Reconciliation and Trust-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina”


New College, University of Edinburgh

14-15 December 2011


Cvete Koneska, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford


Reconciliation is commonly perceived as a central challenge faced in the aftermath of violent conflict of any kind, and it is not easy to study. This is true in particular after ethnic conflicts of an unusually violent nature, as was the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995, which saw widespread ethnic cleansing, with the destruction of whole towns and villages and a massive forced displacement of population. There, post-conflict recovery cannot be limited to the material reconstruction of destroyed houses, infrastructure, churches and mosques, and other historical and cultural heritage. Nor can it be reduced to adoption of new legislation and institutions to promote democratic political competition and economic growth. Overcoming the legacy of the conflict can only be achieved through reconciliation between the three groups, their recognition of the events and atrocities that took place during the war, and joint resolution to live in the same community without desires for revenge against the members of other ethnic groups.


The analytical problems for the student of reconciliation start with identifying a satisfactory basis for examining the dynamics of a process of reconciliation, and these problems were at the heart of the presentations and discussion at the “Reconciliation and Trust-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina” workshop held at New College, Edinburgh in December 2012. Studying reconciliation is challenging both because of the variety of disciplinary approaches applied and because we naturally approach the meaning of reconciliation from many different perspectives and in the light of many different experiences. At the workshop, very different work on a variety of aspects of reconciliation was presented from anthropological, sociological, political philosophical and religious studies perspectives. Within each of these disciplines there are debates about defining reconciliation, qualifying and measuring reconciliation, and finally, about ‘doing’ reconciliation, actively engaging with members of the post-conflict society. The very term reconciliation is also contested. Since there is virtually no consensus over its scope or meaning, many avoid using the concept in order to avoid the pertaining debates and arguments over it.


Constructive inter-disciplinary debates such as that attempted here can widen the space for research grounded in our own disciplines, and can allow for a more comprehensive understanding of complex phenomena. As a political scientist studying post-conflict politics in the Balkans, I found much to reflect on in the research presented here on religious factors, for instance. Religion is a vigorously contested feature of the reconciliation landscape in Bosnia and in the region as a whole. There is a sense in which the study of religion in this context – like the study of reconciliation processes – is contested because it is seen as inherently normative, as being of interest only from the perspectives of affirming its importance or of denouncing its baleful influence. Scholars cannot wholly avoid it in this context, but the problems associated with religion easily lend themselves to being viewed as of marginal importance. Thus, religion is usually considered as a background factor by political scientists publishing on the Bosnian conflict, a deep-seated identity that lent itself to political mobilisation in the run-up to the conflict, playing a symbolic role for differentiation between the three communities in the mixed structure of Bosnian society. Some studies also acknowledge the determining influence of religion in fuelling group conflict through the revival of myths about martyrdom, suffering and heroism. There are few political scientists who look at reconciliation from a wider perspective, allowing space for the study of personal, communal and religious aspects. Expanding the scope of analysis of the challenges faced in reconciliation activities to the personal, psychological and spiritual stretches beyond the empirical domain normally treated in political science or sociology or international relations. Given the potential importance of these dimensions for reconciliation work, an engagement which stretches beyond classic social, political and international structures suggests itself naturally through an interdisciplinary engagement such as this workshop. The challenge lies in finding a rigorous framework which encompasses such divergent levels of analysis.


Highlighting the complexity of the subject is one means by which the many facets of reconciliation in post-conflict societies can be brought into some relation to each other. At the workshop, very different analyses were applied on the basis that reconciliation takes place at many levels in society: personal, local, group and state levels. There are reconciliation efforts targeting public spaces and domains, as well as the pressing need for reconciliation in the private sphere. Perhaps variety is greatest when it comes to the means of reconciliation recommended or applied at various levels. From truth and reconciliation commissions, through international and domestic war crime tribunals and courts, to local initiatives targeting victims, families, youth, or neighbourhoods, there is a long list of methods for ‘doing’ reconciliation. It may be that most of these reconciliation techniques are compatible with each other: targeting particular groups or particular areas considered vulnerable can be combined with state-wide efforts at transitional justice or educational projects in schools. Indeed, pursuing only one aspect of reconciliation is rarely sufficient.


The availability and presence of various reconciliation methods need not imply the desirability of a mutual alignment between such initiatives at different levels in society. In post-conflict situations, there is often a large gap between what goes on at the top political level and the situation at the grass-root levels. Accommodation and cooperation between the political elites of different ethnic groups do not always imply reconciliation among the population. Indeed, in post-conflict societies as a whole, politicians often stir fear and promote stereotyping through nationalist and exclusionary rhetoric and policies. Overcoming this situation may necessitate some forms of coordination between elite and grassroots or popular dimensions. In the Bosnian case, it is clear that successful local reconciliation projects rarely spill over into other areas or to other institutional levels, while the dissemination of best practices from one reconciliation project to another, or throughout the state, is slow and truncated. This gap underlines how much remains to be done before the toxic effects of the conflict legacy on Bosnian society are overcome.


A further reason for a deliberate inter-disciplinary engagement in research on post-conflict reconciliation is the need to be sensitive to the specificities of the land and region studied, of their history and of the various legacies that shape the world-views of their leaders and population. Throughout the workshop, presenters and participants repeatedly emphasized ways in which Bosnia and Herzegovina is an exception to many of the mainstream arguments concerning conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction. The impact of the long imperial histories and divisions in the Balkans, the common Yugoslav state project and regional conflict dynamics in the former Yugoslav space during the 1990s left a distinctive mark on Bosnia and Herzegovina of today. The specific constitutional and citizenship regimes, judicial traditions, religious and philosophical leanings of its people need to be taken into account when studying or taking part into reconciliation efforts, whether at political, community or religious level. Broader perspectives on political institutions, on social dynamics, and on the international context can no more easily be turned into ‘background’ for the study of reconciliation than the local communal or individual actor can. And so a broad inter-disciplinary model for the study of reconciliation, challenging as it may appear, recommends itself, and may not be avoided.

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