Natasa Kandic – Reflections on Restorative Justice

Natasa Kandic doesn’t necessarily have the “look” of a fearless activist.  Her miniature frame, dark-rimmed eyeglasses and stylish haircut reminded me more of a fashion publicist than a human rights firebrand.  But since founding the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Serbia in 1992, Kandic has become a central figure in the struggle to bring justice and peace to the former Yugoslavia.

Kandic, a Serbian by birth, first gained recognition for her tireless efforts to document, publicize and protest against the human rights violations being committed by police and paramilitary groups during the Yugoslav wars from 1991 – 1999.  Throughout the conflict she regularly traveled back and forth across Serbia gathering witness testimonials, oral history, primary records, and other human rights materials – evidence that was later crucial for the preparation of indictments by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.  Fellow Serbs have labeled her a traitor, and her work has earned her the hatred of other military leaders in the region , but being the target of such disdain is nothing new for Kandic; in her view, it is a small price to pay for the revelation of truth and the restoration of peace.

According to Kandic, “reconciliation” has become a political buzzword in the Balkans.  The ICTY was critical in bringing many of the war’s perpetrators to justice, but as the court finishes its work and prepares its transformation into a residual mechanism, the new challenge has become figuring out how to establish lasting peace in a region where ethnic tensions still persist and the memories of war remain fresh in people’s minds.

Kandic’s work with the Humanitarian Law Center highlights her belief that peace can only be achieved once there has been a “restoration of relationships.”  Thus, much of Kandic’s time has been devoted to bringing victims together from a multitude of ethnicities and trying to facilitate a dialogue among them.  Kandic stated, “A lasting peace means a situation in which victims are satisfied with justice and satisfied that they’re respected by society.”

But facilitating such dialogue is easier said than done; cultural barriers often impede the reconciliation process since one ethnic group may feel like their people endured more suffering than others.  And now politicians (and even some victims groups) have begun to use reconciliation as political instrument, a tactic Kandic believes frustrates the process even further since politicizing reconciliation detracts from the victims’ experience in having their pain acknowledged, understood and respected by society.

Fortunately, Kandic’s tenacity seems to be paying off since she has recently noticed a shift in victims’ attitudes towards each other.  By acknowledging the pain each ethnic group caused and endured, and by displaying compassion towards those individuals, victims have begun to view themselves as a unified class capable of having a real voice.  And as Kandic noted, solidarity among victims is the most important result of the reconciliation process; it breaks down the traditional barriers of cultural and political differences and forces the truth to emerge.

Natasa Kandic’s efforts during and after the Yugoslav wars broke new ground in restorative justice, and her focus on victim solidarity is a lesson transferable to the ethnic groups currently suffering through violent power struggles still gripping the Middle East and North Africa.  Although Kandic will always have her critics, few could argue that her collective work has cemented her legacy as one of the great human rights champions of the modern era.

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