Change of minds, change of behaviour. A view on transitional justice in former Yugoslavia


Louis Bickford

Anita Mitic was born as Yugoslavia broke out in civil war and ended up dedicating her life trying to understand what happened. She started from a human rights and transitional justice perspective through the Youth Initiative for Human Rights and that path somehow led to studying international affairs in Texas, where she tries to research other world events but always ends up writing about the fall of Yugoslavia.

What can we learn from former Yugoslavia in terms of transitional justice? For Anita Mitic, the answer is complicated. 

I last saw Anita in person in Sarajevo, where she was living temporarily, in late 2019. We met, with mutual friends, in a bustling café by the edge of the Miljacka river, near the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. The facades of residential buildings in that neighborhood are still pockmarked with holes from bullets from the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, although every time I visit Sarajevo I see fewer and fewer of these grim reminders of that terrible time, as the bullet and shrapnel holes are increasingly being filled with stone-colored plaster, slowly erasing these unofficial physical markers of memory of that time. The hills of Sarajevo are, of course, still visible across the river, now speckled with the warm lights of homes. We drank wine and almost everyone was smoking cigarettes. Anita told me that she had received a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the United States and was considering her options. 

Anita represents a new generation of social and political leadership in the former Yugoslavia. Formerly the Executive Director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, she has the charisma of an emerging leader and the ebullience and loquaciousness of an idealist who wants to change the world. She is passionate and animated when she talks: she gesticulates and speaks loudly. She has considered running for elected office in Serbia some day, and perhaps she will. I interviewed her for this series, remotely, in May, 2020. As of this writing, she is getting a graduate degree in International Affairs, running occasional marathons, and living (under Covid) in Belgrade until she can return to her studies. 

Anita is not optimistic about the former Yugoslavia. Looking back over the post-war period, she worries that national and international actors were remiss in their efforts to confront the past and build a democratic future. She offered a number of critiques. 

The need to adress behavioral norms 

First, Anita stresses that the transitional justice process in Serbia did not directly confront behavioral norms: how people live side by side, and how they understand each other. “When it comes to transitional justice, establishing new norms in society where you have to change your complete view about your neighbor or people who are different, is probably the most difficult or most challenging part in this process”. For her, the goal of these processes is deeply cultural, not only institutional or legal. She wants to see a society where “every kind of disagreement, societal or ethnic disagreement, doesn't spark the idea of possibility of war returning, which means living peacefully with each other in the multi-cultural societies”.

I asked her how this could be accomplished, and she replied that changing “the culture of the society itself” might be done by focusing in a few areas including religious leaders, who have disproportionate influence, as well as focusing on “teachers in schools or our educational system” and how formal education “changes or shapes new generations and then those new generations become the drivers of the change of the society”. Or potentially, in part, by working with artists. For example, she says, “in Serbia and in the Balkans, you have very strong cultural artists and musicians and actors etc. who are very progressive. And you have a very progressive society, but that is not enough because the government works for so many years on repressing the civil society and those people who are progressive that their voice just kind of was lost in that noise”.

The problem of political elites

This is her second, related, criticism: that transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia has not paid adequate attention to the attitudes of the elite political class. In this way, there may have been too much focus on civil society and not enough on political leadership, since “civil societies cannot do anything without politicians and the government if they want to make a real change”. A challenge then is how “to actually make political elites understand that even sometimes doing the right thing is more important than getting next election”. Anita agrees that “if there is no significant political change among the politicians, if they don't follow the footsteps of the reconciliation then I think it's very difficult for societies to do that by themselves”. 

Finally, Anita argued for sharing and exchange among movements and fields that have related goals: “I don't think that transitional justice and dealing with the past or peacemaking, whatever we call it, should be any different from any other movements that we see in this world … it shouldn't be different from the feminist movement or the civil rights movement”. She left me thinking about this idea, which seems especially relevant during the explosion of social movements at the time of this writing.

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Anita Mitic

Issue: Radical Critical

Transitional Justice is a professionalised and internationally accepted policy field. But do its implicit and explicit foundations still hold good? Which of its underlying assumptions, patterns of thinking or practices should be critically reviewed?

Guest moderator

Louis Bickford, CEO,

Louis Bickford, PhD, has been working in the transitional Justice field since 1994 with institutions such as the Ford Foundation; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the International Center for Transitional Justice; and the United Nations, as well as various other foundations and international organizations and has published widely on transitional justice, memory, and human rights. He is the founder and CEO of Memria.Org and an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and New York University.

This blog series examines the field of transitional justice through a critical lens, asking challenging questions and exploring ways in which it is relevant today. Through a small number of carefully-selected interviews, the series intends to provoke debate within the field and help lead to innovation and adaptation.


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