[Originally published here as part of WITNESS’s collaboration with Global Voices Online – this post was written by Gavin Simpson]

It fell to the controversial figure of Carla del Ponte, prosecutor at the UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague, to lament the slow progress of justice in the Former Yugoslavia in a lecture she delivered last week. del Ponte picked out Serbia as a country “removed from the European values”, arguing that truth and justice remain “relative concepts, rather than absolute values”.

In the wake of these comments, the time seems ripe to consider how video fits in to the quest for post-conflict justice. How does the use of video relate to such concepts as truth, reconciliation and accountability? It’s an especially interesting question in a region like the Former Yugoslavia, where the population remains so starkly divided in its interpretations of the recent past.

As the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) noted, video of historical atrocities is being used as part of the continuing propaganda war in the Former Yugoslavia, and few debates around video footage in 2006 have been as highly-charged as the one that accompanied this video clip, first broadcast by Serbia’s B92 television station in August 2006.

Warning: the following video contains graphic imagery of human rights abuse

The video depicts events that took place during so-called “Operation Storm” in August 1995. It came to light almost exactly eleven years later – the most recent example of video footage apparently released to coincide with the anniversaries of major atrocities committed by different sides in the Balkan wars.

On this occasion, the victims on video are Serbs – a civilian shot by Bosnian soldiers and a convoy of refugees harassed by Croatian Army units. When B92 and stations in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia broadcast the footage, political shockwaves quickly spread across the region. Serb leaders demanded prosecutions of the men responsible, while one Bosnian politician called on Serbia to do more to bring its own alleged war criminals – particularly Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic – to justice.

While some Croat and Bosnian representatives derided the video as a “montage” or a misrepresentation of history, a Croatian opinion poll released a few days ago shows that a growing number of Croatians, nearly 70%, were aware that Croat troops committed atrocities against ethnic Serbs between 1991 and 1995, a far higher figure than previously supposed by the Croatian media. The poll also revealed that 80% of those polled – including both Serbs and Croats – believed that these atrocities were war crimes, and that the perpetrators should face justice. Most respondents also felt that justice could not be delivered through the Croatian courts, and would prefer war criminals to be handed over to the International Criminal Court at the The Hague. It’s not yet clear to what extent the release of the Operation Storm videos influenced this perceived change.

Similarly, in June 2005, many Serbs were shocked into re-evaluation when a video depicting Serb atrocities was broadcast close to the tenth anniversary of the massacre of Bosnian civilians at Srebrenica. On that occasion, international media attributed great importance to the video’s emergence and profiled the Serbian activist Natasa Kandic who had traced and exposed it.

As the IWPR reported, videotapes have played a conspicuous role in shaping perceptions of war in the Former Yugoslavia, often setting off cycles of ill-feeling and retraumatising the victims. Even some feature films have had a divisive impact. But are there ways in which this kind of video can be used constructively to aid post-conflict reconciliation and justice?

One initiative that gained a lot of international coverage is the Videoletters project, which has attempted to create video dialogue among people affected by war in the Balkans. It uses the video letter format used by many migrants to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Many of the videos created in this project were aired on public TV stations across South-East Europe and stimulated a vibrant exchange of perspectives, comment and discussion.

GV Eastern Europe editor Veronica Khokhlova has pointed to debates about video footage of atrocities in the past. However, in the realm of Balkan blogs, many of which are cross-linked on sites like East Ethnia, there seems to be something of a dearth of examples of vlogging or other home-grown initiatives dedicated to reconciliation.

How might video be used in this or other situations? As training or education materials? As evidence? To promote reconciliation? What role can citizen journalism play?

There are many other places where video might play a role in the path to justice, and eventually, reconciliation – Uganda, Colombia, East Timor, Rwanda, where Videoletters began working earlier this year, and Armenia/Turkey, where, as in the Balkans, the debate runs over into artistic expression, such as Armenian-Canadian film director Atom Egoyan’s feature film Ararat, or Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s comments to a Swiss newspaper magazine.

If you know of any examples of this kind of use of video anywhere in the world, let us know. Whether it’s the kind of video that tries to turn the tide away from war, towards a peaceful common future, or the kind of video that tries to stoke the embers of a conflict, we’d like to hear your thoughts on it.

[Additional research and reporting by Sameer Padania]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *