As the largest of the former Yugoslav republics, it was the downturn in human rights performance in Serbia in the late 1980s which sparked increased Helsinki Commission focus on Yugoslavia, especially as the Soviet Union and the other communist countries elsewhere of Eastern Europe were, in contrast, increasingly implementing their Helsinki Final Act commitments. A Commission-organized congressional delegation first visited Serbia and met with its leadership as well as human rights advocates in April 1990, a trip which included a visit to Kosovo which was then still a province of Serbia.
A similar delegation returned in March 1991, and Commissioners again visited Kosovo in April 1993, as the Yugoslav federation violently disintegrated. It constituent republics and the province of Kosovo moved toward independent statehood while Slobodan Milosevic sought to establish a “Greater Serbia” through aggression and ethnic cleansing fueled by extreme nationalism. The next congressional delegation to Serbia organized by the Helsinki Commission would not occur until July 2011, although in the 1990s several Helsinki Commissioners traveled to Belgrade to raise their concerns about the Serbian leadership’s direct support for conflict in Bosnia and elsehwre.
Commission staff observed the December 1990 multi-party elections in Serbia and continued to visit the republic periodically in order to observe elections, participate on OSCE field missions, or observe firsthand the human rights situation. The last staff visit was in 2007 to observe parliamentary elections.
Today, Commission concerns regarding Serbia relate less to respect for electoral processes and the rule of law – where the country has progressed reasonably well -- than to the nationalist legacy in Serbian politics and its effect on regional stability.
In calling for U.S. leadership in responding effectively if not decisively to the various Yugoslav conflicts, especially in Bosnia from 1992-95 but also Croatia in 1991 and Kosovo from 1998-99, the Commission actively responded to unprecedented violence against innocent civilian populations on a massive scale.
Following the Dayton Agreement ending the Bosnian conflict in November 1995, through hearings and legislation, the Commission pushed for greater U.S. support for democratic forces within Serbia seeking to challenge Milosevic’s power through democratic change. When the Kosovo conflict ended in 1999, the Commission was known for its focus on the plight of the Serb communities and other minorities in Kosovo, rather than on the issue of Kosovo’s status.
As Serbia has improved its implementation of OSCE norms, the Commission has acknowledged progress and supported the country’s aspirations for EU integration. A priority issue for successive Commission leaders, raised in hearings and meeting as well as through legislation linking progress to U.S. assistance, was Serbian cooperation with the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.This included the apprehension and transfer to the tribunal all persons on Serbian territory indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, a goal achieved in July 2011. It also included encouraging bilateral dialogue with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo rather than directly supporting parallel or separatist political institutions which challenge the sovereignty of those countries.
In 2015, the Commission actively engaged Serbia as it served as the annual chair of the OSCE multilateral diplomatic efforts. This included the appearance of Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic at a Commission hearing, and of the Serbian Ambassador to the United States at a hearing more specifically focused on the migrant and refugee crisis in Europe.
Staff Contact: Everett Price, senior policy advisor