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Serbia

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 2022 to observe parliamentary and presidential 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: Bob Hand, senior policy advisor  

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    This hearing, presided over by the Hon. Chris Smith, then Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, was held on the fiftieth anniversary of Human Rights Day, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in Paris by 56 members of the United Nations. Regarding the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic and his regime, then, this hearing’s date was perfectly apropos. The storied crimes by the Milosevic Regime are world renowned. The hearing was held in the wake of actions by the regime taken against Serbia’s independent media. Earlier on, Milosevic refused to acknowledge the results of municipal elections in Serbia, and, of course, the violent conflicts that the regime was culpable for.  

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    Senior Advisor to the Commission, E. Wayne Merry, chaired this briefing which was part of a series by the Commission on the subject of religious liberties within the OSCE region. This series was prompted by a perceived developing problem of restrictions on religious liberties in several participating states to the OSCE. At the time, the Commission was devoting most of its attention to the countries that that traditionally had a much more tolerant view toward religious minorities, such as those in Western and Central Europe. Participants in this briefing included Francesca Binda, Karen Gainer, and Paul Rowland, all with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) personnel Eric Jowett and Kent Patton.

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    The purpose of this briefing, which Helsinki Commission Chief of Staff Michael Hathaway presided over, was to provide information to the public about the U.S.’s approach to the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting, as well as to hear from two highly respected non-governmental organizations regarding issues that they believed should have been taken up in Warsaw. At the point of the briefing, already established issues at Warsaw included freedom of religion, media, association on assembly, the prevention of torture, international humanitarian law, tolerance and non-discrimination, national minorities, and the plight of the Roma. The aim in mind was to encourage improved implementation of human dimension obligations by OSCE member states. Participants in this hearing included State Department Secretary Rudolph Perina, and Holly Cartner and Adrian Karatnycky with Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, respectively.

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    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

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    In early 1996, with little fanfare, the U.N. Security Council quietly and quickly selected Canadian Judge Louise Arbour to succeed Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The relative ease with which a replacement was chosen -- in contrast to the prolonged, relatively public, and embarrassing manner in which the Security Council members fought among themselves for nearly a year over the selection of the first prosecutor -- reflects the dramatically changed circumstances in which the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal now finds itself. At the time of Goldstone’s appointment in 1994, most observers of the Yugoslav conflict seemed to fall into one of two categories: those that thought war crimes trials should be held, but did not believe the Tribunal would ever indict anybody above the rank of private (let alone hold an actual trial), and those who believed that the mere discussion of war crimes trials undermined peace negotiations. Under Goldstone’s able stewardship, the Tribunal has developed a full complement of staff, including prosecuting attorneys and investigators; issued more than fifty indictments, including for the two highest ranking Bosnian-Serb political and military leaders and three members of the Yugoslav People’s Army; obtained custody of three men; and begun the Tribunal’s first trial. Goldstone has deftly managed a multitude of political crises, successfully traversed the treacherous waters of the U.N. bureaucracy, and, thus far, helped safeguard the legal integrity and credibility of the Tribunal. All of these factors, combined with the achievement of a tenuous peace agreement in Dayton in November 1995,2 now make the possibility of war crimes trials seem, to many, more real than ever before. This memorandum outlines the basic structure of the Tribunal and the most recent developments with respect to investigations and trials, cooperation by U.N. member states with the Tribunal, and funding.

  • Summary of the OSCE Rule of Law Seminar

    From November 28 to December 1, 1995, the participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convened a seminar on the rule of law. The meeting was organized by the Warsaw-based OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). Thirty-eight of the 53 fully participating States attended, along with representatives from two Non-Participating Mediterranean States, six international organizations, and 25 non-governmental organizations. Over the course of two days, a number of emerging democracies described the constitutions and other legislative provisions that had been adopted in their countries to provide for the rule of law, at least on paper. Western participants, for their part, generally spoke of the specific and concrete challenges faced in their countries in actually implementing safeguards for the rule of law. In general, the participation of East-Central European and former Soviet countries—most of which attended this meeting—was more active than at the 1991 Oslo meeting, and Western participants, for their part, avoided the West-West bickering that marred the earlier seminar. At the end of the meeting, the rapporteurs produced summaries of the discussions.

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