Prosecution versus reconciliation
Although international tribunals play a major in holding perpetrators accountable and writing the history of an armed conflict, documenting crimes and atrocities committed, they can often hinder the post-conflict reconciliation process. International prosecution can exacerbate tensions between ethnic groups and feed into conspiracy theories about the West and its ethnic bias. Post-conflict reconciliation following armed conflicts can take decades, particularly when belligerents live in different countries. The task facing international tribunals is not only to hold perpetrators accountable, but also to establish legitimacy and support peacebuilding in the long term. The case of Serbia has underlined how a lack of public support can lead to increased mistrust toward international institutions and hinder reconciliation. In Serbia, a considerable part of the population casts doubt about the impartiality of the ICTY and its contribution to establishing the truth about the war
In the case of Ukraine, the role of an international tribunal cannot be limited to the prosecution of war crimes. Prosecution and reconciliation should not be seen a mutually exclusive. Gaining public support for transitional justice in Russia would help to address issues of mistrust toward the ICC and any other international tribunals, as well as lay the foundation for political reconciliation between the two nations. An approach focused only on retributive justice can exacerbate tensions created by the war. In other words, the choice should not be between truth and reconciliation
, but how international tribunals can play a positive role in both. A middle ground can contribute to finding a long-term solution in such intractable conflicts and avoid perpetuating freshly reinforced warring identities.
For the moment, as the vile crimes committed by Russian forces are fresh in everyone’s minds, reconciliation might appear difficult to conceive. Furthermore, discussions about reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians will remain elusive as war crimes continue to be widely committed across Eastern Ukraine and as the Russian state continues to depict Ukrainians as Nazis, hyper-nationalists and proxies for Western countries. However, a reconciliation strategy should be part of the overall process supported by Western countries and NATO. A long-term post-conflict resolution requires addressing the deeply rooted grievances between people.
The case of Rwanda has underlined that international tribunals can achieve better results in that regard when working in coordination with national courts or an alternative reconciliation process, such as the Gacaca courts or the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Historical cases connected with difficult decolonization, such as the relationship between France and Algeria following the Algerian War, should also inform future strategies. One should remember that such decolonization takes time and requires dedication to resolve the deep-rooted issues sustaining the conflict. Recent speeches by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have shown continued colonial stereotypes among Russian elites. In this matter, international prosecution and transitional justice can play a leading role as long as they are expanded beyond retributive justice.
The judicial process cannot be perceived as a Western-imposed tribunal or based on victor’s justice. Broad acceptance beyond Western countries and Ukraine, including within Russian society, should be a primary objective. Keeping that objective in mind, it is paramount that the alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian forces and volunteers
also be investigated and prosecuted by any international tribunal dedicated to Ukraine.
This is the only way that the judicial process can include the Russian population in a broader conflict transformation that addresses deep-rooted stereotypes and grievances, which would pave the way for a positive peace between the two nations. Long-term reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians will require an introspective process from the latter and a better understanding of crimes committed during the Russian invasion. A perception of legitimacy surrounding an international tribunal for Ukraine would play a critical role in this.Conclusion
Overall, one should not expect a swift judicial process with regard to the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine. Managing expectations among victims appears critical for its legitimacy.