Hi from Kyiv,
My team on the Ukrainian news-site Babel is small and compact, but one of our journalists dedicates most of her time to the topic of wartime and postwar justice. Oksana writes about tribunals and cases of genocide, and interviews human rights lawyers ― and she can provide many reasons why legal efforts help Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion. Especially these days, as she has just returned from The Hague.
While the gun-barrels talk, bombers fly and no end of hostilities is in sight, the phlegmatic order of the courtrooms may seem out of place. But in the end, this is where wars finally end, as judges peel the onion of violence to reach the core of evil decisions and responsible individuals. The resulting feeling of justice, as longtime war reporter Janine di Giovanni says, marks the good end of a war or a hostile regime. A bad ending can lead to more pain in the future.
Arriving at justice is hard work. In this newsletter, my colleagues from North Macedonia, Estonia, Hungary, Spain and France tell how challenging it is for their societies.
Anton Semyzhenko, this week’s Editor-in-Chief
Born in the 1980s in the Balkans, all my life has been influenced by the psychosis of war and ethnic conflict and my effort to cope with this situation, persevere and remain a ‘normal’ person who does not hate.
It started when I was roughly ten. I watched the West struggling to prevent bloodshed between small bickering Balkan nations.
First the war in Slovenia, then Croatia and the Bosnian bloodbath. Kosovo’s turn came next, a border away from my own country. Sure enough, war came to Macedonia in 2001.
Massacres, rapes, inhumanity and torture ― too many to remember, too much to handle.
As local leaders signed peace accords, grudgingly shaking hands with enemies as if small children, forced by their parents to make amends, it became clear. This was not the end. Peace didn’t return. It was just an absence of war.
Reconciliation, we were told, was the key.
Bring people together, speak openly about what happened and you will rekindle human empathy. Individualise the guilt and make those who committed crimes pay, and hope will return.
But as countries handed over their own war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the opposite happened. Former warlords became folk heroes. They became “ICTY Celebrities”, viewed as martyrs by the masses.
By then, war had made losers out of us all. Even if our side had won, we lost loved ones, became refugees, were robbed of our future and scarred with fear and distrust.
The ideological successors of those warlords, who became leaders, convinced us that the people were sole victims, and that an indictment against our “beloved protector” or “freedom fighter” was a conspiracy against us all.
No uplifting note at the end. Just this thought.
War as a physical manifestation may only last a few years. But war as a personal or collective psychosis can last for generations. We have locked the hell of war in our heads, and are waiting for round two.
“With this, Estonia will forever legalise Russia’s continued occupation. There is no reason to just give away 5.2 per cent of Estonia’s land, water and airspace.”
So said Mart Helme, one of the leaders of Estonia’s far-right EKRE party, who was also the country’s ambassador to Moscow in the 1990s. EKRE is on a mission to reclaim the areas in eastern Estonia that became part of the newborn country after a 1920 treaty with Russia.
Following the 1944 to 1991 Soviet occupation, Estonians were left with 94.8 per cent of their country, while the areas Jaanilinn and Petseri became part of The Russian Federation. It is ironic that as ambassador, Helme was part of the negotiating team that agreed to formally give up 5.2 per cent of Estonia.
EKRE voters will forgive hypocrisy, but not weakness. The scar of the lost lands will probably haunt Estonian politics beyond the still-unratified new treaty. There will always be political space for talk of an unresolved occupation.
Accountability for crimes under the communist state dictatorship and repression after the 1956 anti-Soviet revolution is still a sensitive issue in Hungary. At the time of the regime change in 1989, the situation was clear: the key to a peaceful transition was to spare the guilty.
In 1990, Gábor Péter, the dreaded commander of the pre-1956 communist political police, the ÁVH, was still alive. So was former Interior Minister Béla Biszku, one of the main perpetrators of the post-revolutionary repressions. Ferenc Vida, the judge who sentenced to death Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of the revolutionary government, was also still living. They bore no legal responsibility for their deeds at that time.
Decades later, Béla Biszku was tried under international law. Trials, which started in 2010, ended without a final conviction. In March 2016, 95-year-old Biszku died in liberty. If he had continued living, who knows whether he would receive a real sentence.
The reason for this doubt is that the European Court of Human Rights in 2008 acquitted one of the few men convicted in Hungary for shooting into the crowd in 1956, Captain János Korbely. According to the court’s verdict, Korbely’s actions were not a crime against humanity, but manslaughter. This fell under the statute of limitations, so he could not face a conviction.
Demand for accountability of former leaders definitely exists in Hungary. This is evidenced by the trials of suspects of crimes against humanity, the Salgótarján, the Mosonmagyaróvár, the Tata, and the Nyugati Pályaudvar salvo, which have received a lot of public attention. But after decades of ineffectiveness (only the Salgótarján and the Tata trials ended with convictions), people have become disillusioned, are tired of the issue and would rather not dwell on the past. After 34 years since the regime change, there is also hardly anyone still alive to convict for their crimes committed under the communist dictatorship.
The Spanish transition from dictatorship to democracy was mainly non-violent, but many unresolved issues are returning to the public debate, especially concerning what justice means.
In 1975, the dictator Franco dies. Spain starts its transition to democracy. Why was it necessary to enforce a transition without seeking formal justice for the past?
The Spanish transition was highly conditioned by those who carried out the process: the heirs of the dictatorship. There were some concessions [to democracy and transitional justice], but they were not too extensive, and the idea was to keep the former power brokers protected. For example, the amnesty law: it was planned to investigate the victims during the dictatorship, but the perpetrators also used it to cover themselves. This sets the tone for the Spanish transition.
Abroad, people often talk about Spain as a model of peaceful transition. I’m quite critical of that idyllic vision, but [the political protagonists of the transition] did what could be done at the time. It wasn’t about a “scorched earth” policy, and it is important to know the balance of power at that moment. Perhaps criticising the transition from the current perspective is a bit too much. But I also think that over 40 years more could have been done.
What exactly could have been done?
There are some issues pending: for example, a Truth Commission. Transitional justice has three dimensions: truth, justice, and reparation. We think a lot on the justice dimension, on punishing the guilty, but the dimension of truth in Spain has not been properly developed at the time. I believe there has never been a serious debate about it.
How do you see the Spanish transition treated as a “model” for other conflicts?
It shouldn’t be a model in a sense that this is something worthy of imitating. When talking about the Spanish transition as exemplary, it seems to me that it is part of a flawed speech on the equality between the sides like: “atrocities were committed by both sides” or “the best thing is to forget everything”.
On 3 January 2021, the French military bombed a group of men gathered near the village of Bounti, in central Mali. All were “terrorists”, according to officials from France, which had a military presence in the Sahelian country from 2013 to 2022.
A UN inquiry published three weeks after the attack rejected this hypothesis. Of the 22 people killed, 19 were civilians attending a wedding. The other three were armed men belonging to the Katiba Serma, a mysterious jihadist group. France has always contested the UN report, claiming to have shot down “jihadist fighters” identified after conducting a long “intelligence operation”.
Thanks for reading the 46th edition of European Focus,
Realising justice may take decades and, as Ukrainian lawyers will tell you, there are literally bus-loads of documents with evidence of war crimes. Is it worth time and effort? Ukrainians are more than ready to scour through this material.
Here we still hope that a special tribunal and international courts can make Russia accountable for what it has done to our nation. And we are ready to dedicate years of our lives to this cause.
Hopefully, one day will clearly show how valuable this is.
See you next Wednesday!