The Powerful Tweets of Youth Activism in the Post-Conflict Balkans: Putting Twenty Years of International Justice into Context

5 juillet 2013
My commentary draws from empirical examples to demystify a stereotype of youth across the region, who are often portrayed as a “lost generation” that were helplessly caught in the middle of the conflict, having inherited the heavy burden of a shattered social tissue. My research, however, shows that this is far from the truth. On the contrary, I have noticed a growing interest and involvement in youth activism to fight impunity, advocate for accountability, and disclose facts about the conflict to create a collective memory. In this context it is interesting to raise two important questions. First of all, how were youth activists able to occupy a new space and become influential actors in regional transitional justice processes? And secondly, how did young human rights advocates create a voice for the so-called “lost generation”?

Part of the answer to these questions lays in the diffusion of international humanitarian law concepts in the early 1990s. The legal spillover effect triggered a wave of global justice initiatives that imported human rights norms from the global to the local level via international foundations (such as the Open Society and Rockefeller Foundations) and nongovernmental organizations that frequently rely on government funding and grants provided by these philanthropic institutions to finance their work. My recent research data confirm this hypothesis. Interview records from youth engaged in human rights work and transitional justice advocacy across the Balkans indicates that many of the participants have been exposed to a globalized human rights discourse while pursuing their post-secondary education over the past 10 years. In fact, the curricula of these university programs have only been developed in recent years. Moreover, workshops and other thematic programs that aim at disseminating a global human rights discourse are in large part organized under the aegis of domestic human rights organizations that depend on international donor support.

Notwithstanding the mentorship of international advocates and established domestic human rights defenders, youth activists have created their own toolkit of practices to deal with the past and account for mass atrocities. As a case in point, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which maintains offices in different capital cities across the region, has launched independent projects that are context specific and address local needs to cope with war crimes, impunity, and collective memory issues. In early November 2012, for instance, when Croatians celebrated All Saints’ Day and commemorated fallen war heroes in conjunction with the religious holiday, the YIHR in Zagreb launched a campaign called “Operation Commemoration – REKOM for the future”. Its goal was to remember the dead and missing of the Croatian Homeland War fought from 1991 to 1995, during which not only ethnic Croatians lost their lives, but also many Croatian Serbs.

The organizers mounted 1,800 pieces of paper with the names of missing victims (mostly ethnic Serbs) on trees surrounding the Franjo Tudjman Square, breaking a taboo in Croatian society where by human rights violations committed against the Serbian minority during the liberation of the country are still largely ignored by the general public. While the campaign fueled positive reactions from people strolling in the park at first, curious local by passers soon noticed the Serbian names on the white flip cards, which provoked criticism and discomfort.

While the installation wasn’t built to last – due to bad weather conditions and the city’s army of street cleaners, the performance art vanished within days – the organizers nevertheless had touched a nerve in Croatian post-conflict politics. The bold and innovative work of dealing with the past by a growing and eager group of young activists is paving the way for a new form of advocacy that brings the abstract legal world of The Hague with its distant war crimes trials back into the daily lives of post-war Balkan societies. Employing Twitter, Facebook, and other online tools, these advocates have captured the zeitgeist of the social media era by putting it in the service of human rights advocacy. Youth leaders have set an ambitious goal of reaching out and initiating a public debate about different taboos with respect to the Balkan wars not only among younger generations—who grew up with biased war histories—but also to society at large across the entire region. Such a goal is likely to face more challenges in the months and years to come, and unfortunately, might include political obstacles, targeted physical threats, and violence. It nevertheless constitutes a crucial strategy to build a common future in the former Yugoslavia and requires encouragement and support.

Photo : Memory advocacy campaign in Croatia (November 2012) installed by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. 1,800 pieces of paper with names of missing persons were mounted to trees surrounding the Franjo Tudjman Square. Photo courtesy of Youth Initiative for Human Rights Croatia.