INTERVIEW, EXCLUSIVELY FOR “THE BRIDGE”/ Fred Abrahams: The collapse of communism and the tragedy of ethno-wars

Fred Abrahams is associate program director at Human Rights Watch where he trains
research staff and supervises work on technology, conflicts and refugees. He has documented human rights and laws-ofwar violations in places such as Albania, Bangladesh, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Sri Lanka, and Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. He co-authored A Village Destroyed: War Crimes in Kosovo and wrote Modern Albania: From Dictatorship to Democracy in Europe.

You have had a long experience in our region. Which where, according to you, the most salient aspects in terms of Human Rights?

My engagement in the Balkans touched two eras, which of course overlap and interact. The first was the fall of the communist system, the collapse of rigid and powerful party-states. The second was the violence, turmoil and tragedy of the ethno-driven wars. In both cases, I focused primarily on the southern Balkans, and in particular Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia.

For the first, the human rights themes that stood out were often the classic civil and political rights: freedom of speech and assembly, the right to due process and a fair trial, the ban on torture and inhumane treatment in prison. More broadly, we might call it the need to build independent institutions, such as media, the judiciary and police, which serve the public rather than the party in power. But we can go deeper than that, not pointing to a concrete human right that is enshrined in international documents but to a loftier aspiration: to live free from fear.

For the second, we dealt mostly with the rules of the game when the game gets nasty, meaning the laws of war. And in former Yugoslavia, the conduct was brutal; I don’t need to list the atrocities that all sides committed. Courts are still trying to address those crimes and societies in all places are struggling with the abominations that got committed against them and in their name.

Of course, the two eras are related. The lack of independent institutions helped nationalist manipulators rise to power and drive to war. A people not used to living without fear, being told who is in charge, turned to a new formula: venom towards the other.

Common themes emerge, too. The main connector is probably the absence of checks and controls on power. Those with their hands on the levers pull and push them as they wish without consent or review by the affected. A lack of transparency and accountability in war and peace allows for power-holders to amass great strength with consequences of life and death.

The third phase that we see now, post-communist, post-war transition has inherited the maladies of the phases that came before.

How does the education with the values of Human Rights contribute in overcoming national and ethnic tensions and conflicts?

From schools to society. What we teach children in the classroom can deescalate tension, increase mutual understanding and bridge divisions. But it does not suffice on its own. Or maybe we need to widen the definition of education to include what we teach children – by showing and doing – in the family, our social circles, and in the public sphere because they are constantly watching and absorbing how adults behave.

In the formal school setting, one critical task is to avoid reification of national myths, in which the heroes (men) and values of a country are hoisted above the needs and aspirations of others. The false fantasies on which kitsch poems are written and banal ballads are sung. Instead, we could teach children about joint human endeavours and the movements the bind us. That doesn’t mean to avoid or degrade national history but to place them in the context of a larger stage.

Human rights offers one framework for that because it addresses the inalienable rights that we all have, regardless of what side of a border we call home. These rights respect autonomy and independence on the one hand and universality on the other, and I believe that children become wiser and societies healthier with a lesson like that.

With regards to certain nationalisms in the Balkans, Jacques Rupnik said that they claim for a French idea of the state, i.e. a political-juridical idea of the state, in which all citizens were equal, no matter what their ethnic identities, while on the other hand, they have a German idea of the nation, i.e. an ethnic-cultural one. How does the Human Rights system of values tackle this divide between universalism and particularism in reality?

The international human rights system falls squarely on universality while, as mentioned above, respecting particularism. That is, an over-arching right that we all enjoy is the right to be ourselves (within the limits of harming others). Different states and regions have different interpretations of course, and there’s room for that if the debate is transparent and sincere. Europe’s interpretation of free speech, for instance, is more restrictive than that in the United States, where Nazis are allowed to protest and publish.

In the Balkans, the ethno-character of rights implementation is sometimes ingrained in law; I’m thinking of Bosnia as one example where roughly 12 percent of the population cannot run for president or parliament because of their religion, ethnicity, or where they live (despite a ruling condemning this by the European Court of Human Rights). But in many places it’s not the law itself but implementation of the law, or the corruption that corrodes the law.

What is your opinion about the present situation of Human Rights in the Balkans?

I have not conducted investigations lately to understand the nuance, and my reporting was always based on that. But the view from a distance leaves me deeply disturbed.

Of course each country has its own dynamics but a few troubling trends emerge, for instance the common fragility of institutions as checks on power, or put another way, the politicization of the bodies that should stand on their own. Across the region, we’re seeing leaders who work to undermine these institutions, viewing power as an opportunity to steal rather than an obligation to serve.

The media deserves special mention here, with a concerted effort to defang effective, independent journalism – the kind that asks tough questions and holds leaders to account. The courts stand out as well, with prosecutors and judges who are bought or pressured to serve interests above the law.

Meanwhile, the anger and resentment from the wars remain, and can easily be stoked. My stomach turns when I see convicted war criminals get released from prison and feted as heroes by governments today. That’s a message to children! And local courts prosecuting war crimes have been slow and ineffective, and going after the smallest fish.

Another commonality is abuse against women, who suffer from domestic violence and discrimination with inadequate interventions and policies by the state.

The international context adds a dangerous layer. Geopolitical relations are obviously changing with Europe, the U.S., Russia, Turkey, China in the mix. At a geographic and political crossroads, the Balkans are vulnerable to instability as the tectonic plates shift. Low trust in political leaders, high levels of corruption, weak institutions and ethnic animosity make a calamitous cocktail.

And what is your opinion about their situation in Europe?

We saw some hopeful signs over the past year. The European Union applied more pressure on Hungary and Poland, for example, for violating democratic norms and the rule of law. And we’ve seen inspired action by young people who demand action around the climate threat.

But the over-arching trends require urgent attention. Populist parties gained strength in the European Parliament, where they can push their xenophobic agenda. In many European countries, we saw rising discrimination and violence against minorities with inadequate responses by the state. As we honor the 75 anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz we are witnessing anti-Semitism at post-war peaks. And of course Europe has not found a humane and orderly way to manage migration, choosing instead to block arrivals and outsource responsibility to other countries, such as Libya where migrants and asylum seekers are routinely detained, abused and killed.

The rifts within the EU are preventing it from pursuing a coherent rights-respecting strategy in the Balkans. The record of promoting rights in the region is mixed but the divisions that exist, and appear set to grow, will likely make this record worse.