Zagreb, August 6th, 2021
On Wednesday, August 4th, 2021, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Croatia organized a panel “26th Anniversary of the Operation Storm: Challenges and Obstacles for Reconciliation”. The panelists were Sven Milekić, a Ph.D. candidate at the Maynooth University in Ireland and dr. sc. Jelena Đureinović, a historian and coordinator of the research platform “Transformations and Eastern Europe at the University of Vienna. The panel was moderated by Branka Vierda, the coordinator for justice and reconciliation programs at the Youth Initiative.
The aim of the panel was to reflect on the last year’s anniversary and comment on the expectations from this year’s anniversary in the context of contributions to reconciliation politics, to problematize the fragmented approaches regarding the realization of transitional justice mechanisms with regards to the wars of the 1990s, to comparatively analyze the politics of memory and history in Croatia and Serbia regarding the celebration and commemoration of the Operation Storm, and to question the possibilities of civil society organizations to contribute through advocacy to better relations among the aforementioned states.
Aware of the fact that the public spaces in Croatia and Serbia are filled with opposing narratives regarding what had happened during and after Operation Storm, we aimed to include the questions from the audience as well, evaluate the progress alongside our panelists, and identify the obstacles to and opportunities for an anti-nationalist and multiperspective, but also inclusive, approach to memorialization and explain exactly why such an approach is important.
In the beginning, we reflected on last year’s anniversary of Operation Storm when the public space was filled with messages of reconciliation, dialogue, the importance of facts, and mourning of victims of war crimes committed by the Croatian side. Sven noted certain positive shifts within the commemoration of Operation Storm in 2020, but also noted how such gestures are easily forgotten. Jelena pointed out that Serbian officials condemned the decision of Boris Milošević, the Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia in charge of social affairs and human and minority rights, to attend last year’s celebration of Operation Storm.
The moderator invited the panelists to comment on last year’s statement by Saša Milošević, the Secretary-General of the Serb National Council, which describes the Operation Storm as “legal, although many of its segments were criminal; it is an act of liberating the state, but also an act of ethnic cleansing”. Commenting on this statement, Jelena explained how such a multi-perspective approach is not present within the state-led commemorations of Operation Storm in Serbia where there is no acknowledgment of the war events that occurred prior to Operation Storm nor any conversation about the forced mobilization of refugees from Serbia. Sven agreed that in the Croatian context too, such a multiperspective approach is lacking. Without this approach, the crimes during and after Operation Storm are depicted as merely individual, isolated incidents which have nothing to do with the state politics of the time.
We additionally discussed the paradoxical insistence on the “Serbian victim” during and after Operation Storm in Serbia as a state which has not recognized the status for these victims yet. Jelena named this approach a misuse of victims for political purposes. She also clarified that in order to be recognized as a civil war victim in Serbia, it is necessary to prove one’s Serbian citizenship as well as that the victims incurred physical injuries from the enemy on the territory of the Republic of Serbia, which effectively excludes the civil victims of Operation Storm.
We also commented on the Law on the civilian Homeland War victims which was recently passed in the Croatian parliament. The Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, announced this law during this speech in Knin in 2020. Learning from the experiences related to the Act on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence during the Military Aggression against Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War, Sven pointed out that it is important to wait and monitor the implementation of the law. In response to the question about the potential discriminatory implementation of the law, Milekić emphasized that the victims may also seek to exercise their rights through the European Court of Human Rights if, having exhausted the legal channels in the Republic of Croatia, their rights are not recognized. Furthermore, he explained how there are various challenges related to the implementation of the law that go beyond just the ethnicity of the victims.
Apart from reparations for victims, we spoke about the importance of prosecuting war crimes, especially in the context of last year’s anniversary when those in the highest positions of power publicly and unequivocally recognized that the crimes had happened. Sven pointed out the lack of interest and will to prosecute war criminals, while Jelena emphasized how even when the domestic courts prosecute war crimes, the public is insufficiently familiar with the judgments and the established facts.
We also spoke about the expectations of this year’s anniversary of Operation Storm in Croatia and Serbia in the context of the steps announced by the senior state officials. The moderator asked the panelists to comment on the intention of the Croatian president Zoran Milanović to hand medals of honor to the units which supported Operation Storm, just as he did last year, without discussing the role that these units played in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the end, we reflected on the positive examples of solidarity after the devastating earthquake in Banija in the form of aid which came from all over Croatia, but also the region entirely freed from the national and ethnic differences. We emphasized the importance of peacebuilding on the level of local mutual aid, while also taking into account the need for achieving socio-economic justice for the civil war victims.
You may find the recording of the entire panel on our Facebook page via the following link: https://www.facebook.com/YIHRCroatia/videos/1481001195583653
Campaign 2: Commemorating civil victims of the wars of the 1990s on marked and unmarked sites of casualties is part of the project 4O: Discovery, awareness, empowerment and human rights organization whose total value is 170.147€ out of which 149.922,00€ is funded with the support of Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Norway under EGP and Norwegian grants.