REF: 2021

Impact case study

Promoting civil society-led approaches to post-conflict reconciliation


It was Dr Kostovicova’s research on gender issues within the broad consultative process on truth-seeking in post-Yugoslav states that focused our attention more on the importance of a fully inclusive and participative approach in dealing with the past.

Former Outreach and Partnerships Director

Humanitarian Law Center (part of RECOM, a network of civil society organisations)

Dr Denisa  Kostovicova

Research by

Dr Denisa Kostovicova

European Institute

LSE research on the legacy of conflict in the Western Balkans has strengthened the work of UK and international policymakers and civil society-led responses to reconciliation.  

What was the problem? 

Contemporary conflicts frequently have cross-country, regional manifestations and impacts: rebels cross borders to commit atrocities, and people flee to other countries for safety. As a result, victims and perpetrators are separated by borders. This means that when a national approach is applied to pursue post-conflict justice, perpetrators can evade accountability.  

Additionally, domestic and international war crimes trials are insufficient to address the vast scale of suffering typical of contemporary conflicts. As such, they ultimately, and crucially, lack legitimacy with victims at grassroots level. Complementary, “bottom-up”, victim-centred restorative civil society processes at a regional level are needed, but to date we have lacked evidence of their effectiveness.  

In these situations, civil society and community organisations can play a crucial role in the process of reckoning with war crimes and in rebuilding relations between different identity groups across borders in regions affected by conflict. This also includes the promotion of a “gender-just” peace, which recognises women’s voices and concerns, which have been shaped by the gendered nature of violence and are often marginalised. 

What did we do? 

Dr Denisa Kostovicova’s research investigates how post-conflict justice and reconciliation can contribute to the strategic goals of post-conflict peacebuilding.  

Her research addresses gaps in peacebuilding policy and scholarship focused on national-level transitional justice mechanisms, such as war crimes trials or truth commissions, which ignore the regional dimensions of contemporary conflicts. Kostovicova is also interested in women’s patterns of speaking behaviour, and her work examines the little-understood dynamics of women’s participation in peacebuilding and transitional justice processes where women sit next to men at the negotiating table.  

Kostovicova’s research, principally focused on the Balkans, has provided robust new empirical evidence on the impact of a regional, multinational (rather than national), approach to post-conflict justice, led by local civil society actors. Analysis derived from text-mining and discourse analysis of reconciliation debates across six languages showed that regional-level discussions are more reconciliatory than national-level equivalents, and focus on issues such as truth, justice, solidarity, and empathy for all victims regardless of their ethnicity.  

This evidence shows that for external efforts to gain legitimacy in the Balkans, the European Union (EU) needs to support restorative, civil society-led approaches such as interethnic consultations to better address a range of issues, including post-conflict justice. 

Kostovicova’s collaborative research has also advanced understanding of the gendered dimension of peacebuilding and reconciliation. This analysed how women’s voices are marginalised in peacebuilding discussions, providing evidence of men’s domination of public debates, specifically how they dominate speaking turns, restricting women’s deliberative space and their opportunities to develop and sustain arguments that reflect their concerns.  

What happened? 

Through a series of interventions to advocate for the inclusion of civil society actors and a regional approach to reconciliation in the Western Balkans, Kostovicova’s research has influenced UK and international policymakers’ responses to the legacy of conflict in the region.  

The first step was ensuring the question of reconciliation was included in UK policymakers’ agendas. Kostovicova submitted evidence to the UK Parliament, to both the House of Lords International Relations Committee’s 2017 Western Balkans Inquiry and the House of Commons Foreign Relations Committee Balkans Inquiry. Her evidence was cited by both, with the Lords’ final report recognising the importance of post-conflict reconciliation and women’s participation. The Commons’ report quoted her evidence on the “weakness of an already fragile civil society [that] is under increasing pressure from increasingly authoritarian leaderships”, which she discussed in the context of peacebuilding, stabilisation, and rule of law. The government’s response to the Commons’ report set out its policy goals for the Western Balkans, and its key metrics for success. This included seeing “resilient institutions that underpin the rule of law, and enabling inclusive and democratic societies with a free press and an engaged civil society.”  

Kostovicova engaged with practitioners ahead of the UK-sponsored Western Balkans Summit held in London on 10 July 2018. This was part of the “Berlin Process”, which has supported the EU integration process of the Balkan countries since 2014. Before and after this summit, the UK distinguished itself among EU member states by being a firm champion of the region’s so-called “legacy issues”, marked by limited progress in addressing war crimes, which had undermined efforts towards peacebuilding and stability.  

The UK’s approach at the summit, informed by the political complexities and sensitivities of dealing with accountability for mass atrocities perpetrated in the region, resulted in the joint commitment of all Balkan states “to overcome the legacy of the past, through promoting reconciliation and good neighbourly relations”, with specific joint commitments on missing persons and establishing facts of war crimes against all victims, including victims of conflict-related sexual violence. This declaration established an interstate-level commitment to continue to work on the legacy of war and work towards reconciliation.  

Kostovicova’s research on a regional approach to peacebuilding and transitional justice was also of interest to the United Nations (UN). In March 2017, the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum invited Kostovicova to contribute to a strategy session on conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the Western Balkans, hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna. Here Kostovicova again highlighted the value of regional, civil society-led reconciliation efforts. Following this session, the UN’s summary of the discussion recognised “the UN could promote a regional approach to reconciliation as a way to unblock national efforts which remain stymied by the elites". Applying insights from Kostovicova’s research beyond the Western Balkans, a UN representative has since ensured women had deliberative space to express their views in mixed-sex workshops in Africa. 

Besides informing international policymaking, Kostovicova’s research provided important evidence that enhanced the advocacy capacity of Balkan civil society organisations. RECOM is a regional network of civil society organisations that aims to establish a fact-finding commission about war crimes and other gross violations of human rights committed in the former Yugoslavia. Kostovicova presented findings from her analysis of regional-level, post-conflict justice debates, including the representation of women in the process, to RECOM’s regional gathering. At the Poznań Summit in July 2019, the successor summit to the 2018 London event, the Chair’s conclusions explicitly noted the importance of reconciliation and of RECOM’s role here. The resulting declaration embedded legacy issues within the Berlin Process initiated at the London Summit.