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Helsinki Commissioners Press Belgrade to Apprehend Indicted War Criminals, Cooperate with Hague Tribunal
Monday, July 07, 2003

By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor

On June 16, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell certified that Serbia and Montenegro met U.S. criteria set forth in section 578 of the Consolidated Appropriations Resolution. These criteria include Serbia and Montenegro’s level of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Without certification, certain bilateral assistance to Serbia would have been withheld.

Leading Members of the United States Helsinki Commission have long been concerned with the level of cooperation by the Government of Serbia and Montenegro with ICTY and have consistently urged the authorities in Belgrade to do more. Concerned Commissioners have sought to increase attention paid to developments in Serbia in the aftermath of the March assassination of reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. There is a general sense among Commission leaders that while Belgrade’s cooperation with the Tribunal has been improving, it still remains insufficient.

In the lead up to the June 15th certification deadline, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) participated in a Commission public briefing featuring Carla Del Ponte, Chief Prosecutor of the Tribunal. As of the May 15th briefing, Del Ponte characterized cooperation from Belgrade as uncertain, underscoring that movement comes only when it is seen as politically beneficial for the Serbian Government. She noted some cooperation in accessing documents; however, for more than a year, the prosecution has pushed for the transfer of 155 Serbian documents in connection with the Milosevic trial without success.

Del Ponte expressed concern over the failure to detain wanted fugitives – particularly Veselin Sljivancanin, indicted for the 1991 Vukovar massacre in Croatia, and Ratko Mladic and five others wanted in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina. “Mladic is a great mystery because we know where Mladic is,” she asserted. “We passed this information to the Serbian Government in Belgrade, and nothing happened.”

Del Ponte stressed that if law and order is to prevail criminal justice must be credible. Failure to bring together all those accused to trial frustrates the progress of the Tribunal and forces the witnesses to present repeatedly their own horrific accounts each time a separate case is brought to trial. She also assessed cooperation with Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo during the course of the briefing.

In a letter dated May 23, five Members of the Helsinki Commission urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to utilize the time prior to the certification deadline to press authorities in Belgrade to take the steps necessary to meet the certification requirements. The Commissioners recognized the significant strides Serbia has made in cooperation with the Tribunal, but underscored that “a failure to apprehend Mladic and other notorious war criminals soon would be a serious setback to the cause of reform and recovery at home and further delay Serbia’s integration in Europe.” The letter was signed by Co-Chairmen Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO), and Commissioners Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD), Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD).

The United States Helsinki Commission held a second briefing on June 4, detailing Serbia and Montenegro’s cooperation with the Tribunal, and the prospects for human rights and democratic development in Serbia since the lifting of the state of emergency imposed after Djindjic’s assassination.

Helsinki Commission Senior Advisor Donald Kursch opened the briefing, welcoming the tough measures authorities in Belgrade have taken in the wake of Mr. Djindjic’s murder to crack down on criminal elements. Nina Bang-Jensen, Executive Director and General Counsel for the Coalition for International Justice, described Serbia’s actual cooperation with the Court as “very limited, begrudging, and only under pressure.” After last year’s certification, Serbia’s government promised a consistent pattern of cooperation, but only three surrenders and one arrest have followed.

Bang-Jensen cited the failure to apprehend nineteen Bosnian Serb and Serbian indicted suspects, either living within Serbia or frequently crossing into Serbia, as an indication that the current government is inclined to protect the old regime.

Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, recommended that the United States look not only at Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY, but to its overall level of commitment to rule of law. Following Djindjic’s assassination in March, the Serbian Government imposed a state of emergency to crack down on organized crime. It is estimated that more than 10,000 people were held incommunicado for up to two months under this guise. International monitors were denied access to detainees until recently, and Andersen noted that released detainees reported widespread abuse.

Despite increasing pressure from the international community on Serbia’s domestic courts to shoulder greater responsibility for holding war criminals accountable, only four domestic trials were held this year. There is also no indication of upcoming trials or of a permanent commitment to such a process. Trials that have proceeded suffered from a lack of witness protection, poor case preparation by prosecutors, and problems facilitating witnesses traveling from other areas of the former Yugoslavia.

James Fisfis, Resident Program Officer for Serbia at the International Republican Institute, remained optimistic. Fisfis presented the results of an IRI survey suggesting that 56 percent of Serbian citizens believe the country is now on the right track, up from 38 percent before the assassination. Sixty-four percent of Serbian respondents currently support cooperation with The Hague, seeing it as a necessary measure toward gaining international acceptance. The data suggest a window of opportunity exists for pressure to reform to have an impact.

Ivan Vujacic, Ambassador of Serbia and Montenegro to the United States, acknowledged that “more can be done and more will be done” in cooperation with the Tribunal, but focused on the progress made over the last two and half years, which he described as “remarkable.” In particular, he pointed to the recent arrests of three “pillars of Milosevic’s rule”: Miroslav Radic, Franko Simatovic, and Jovica Stanisic.

Ambassador Vujacic said that the Serbian Government was highly committed to protecting human rights. He stated that during the war “the ultimate human right, the right to life was taken from the victims in atrocities defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Vujacic promised that all indictees in the territory of Serbia and Montenegro will be arrested and transferred to The Hague.

A second Helsinki Commission letter to Secretary of State Powell dated June 12th, declared that certification could not be justified at the time. The letter concluded: “To certify would be detrimental to U.S. foreign policy goals supporting international justice and successful and complete democratic change in Serbia.”

The letter reiterated that the Serbian authorities had yet to arrest and transfer Mladic and other indictees who are most likely in Serbia, and even this did not define the full cooperation with the Tribunal desired. Commission Members warned that if certification occurred while the required conditions remained unmet, the United States’ ability to affect change in Serbia would be diminished, making it more difficult for Serbia’s political leadership to undertake necessary reforms.

Some Commission Members view the June 13 arrest of the indicted war crimes suspect Veselin Sljivancanin by the Belgrade authorities as an important positive step toward increased cooperation with the ICTY. However, continued failure to apprehend Mladic and other leading indictees remains a serious cause of concern that places barriers to Serbia and Montenegro’s full re-integration into the international community.

In a press release announcing certification, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher asserted that the Secretary’s decision to certify does not indicate that Serbia has fulfilled its commitment. “We have made clear ... that the United States expects further actions to be taken in order to meet those obligations,” Boucher said, “including by arresting and transferring Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.”

The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.


United States Helsinki Commission Intern Kristin Poore contributed to this article.

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