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Relatives Testify to Struggles to Resolve Missing Persons Cases in Former Yugoslavia
Thursday, September 25, 2003

By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor

The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing Friday, August 1, 2003, to address the issue of missing persons in the southeastern region of Europe formerly known as Yugoslavia.

Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) presided over the hearing which featured testimony from four witnesses who lead non-governmental organizations representing the families of missing persons in Kosovo and Croatia.

In his opening statement, Chairman Smith noted the importance of stories from relatives of missing persons to underscore the human tragedy and legacy of the conflicts that erupted in the region. In exploring those experiences, Smith said, those in the United States can begin to empathize with such a heartbreaking issue not often noted as a consequence of conflict.

Citing the twenty-eighth anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, Smith remarked that "nothing is more appropriate for the Helsinki Commission than to have a public hearing not about policies and programs, but about real people who have suffered so much. Like the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity, the resolution of missing persons cases can help bring about at least some closure and help individuals recover from their tragic loss."

In prepared remarks for the hearing, Co-Chairman Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO) said, "While we are saddened by the stories our witnesses will tell of missing relatives--some for many, many years--we are also inspired by their courage and leadership as they forge ahead seeking truthful answers." Co-Chairman Campbell emphasized that stringent professional law enforcement procedures are needed throughout the region of Southeast Europe in order to help bring closure to existing cases.

Gordana Jaksic is a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Parents and Families of the Arrested, Captured and Missing in Novi Sad, Serbia. Jaksic testified that her Serbian-based organization is currently investigating cases of 560 missing persons who vanished from 1991 to 1996, immediately following the fall of Yugoslavia. One case is that of her own son, Slobodan, captured by Croatian forces in May 1992 while serving in the Yugoslav People's Army in Bosnia. "Eleven years is a very long time," Jaksic said. "I do not ask for pity. I do not need anyone's pity. I want to [awaken] people's minds and consciousness so that they raise their voices together with mine so that we can reach the truth."

In response, Chairman Smith expressed sympathy and added, "The time has come for closure, and the only way that there will be closure is if the political will exists on all sides to get to the bottom of this."

Cedomir Maric is President of the Association of Missing Persons from Krajina, a Belgrade-based organization investigating the cases of 2,824 Serbian families from within the territory of Croatia known as Krajina. Maric testified that his dedication to the cause of missing persons began in 1995, when his son, Jalimir, was kidnapped in the town of Knin.

"Our struggle has been going on for eight years, but it will continue until we find our loved ones," Maric told the Commission. "As time passes by, we become more conscious of the fact that maybe we will not reach the day, we will not live to the day when we wait for them at home and they come back alive, but we want to continue the struggle to get the remains of our children so that we know where we can bury them and go to light the candle according to our rights."

Olgica Bozanic and Verica Tomanovic represent the Belgrade-based Association of Family Members of Missing and Kidnapped Individuals. Bozanic described her five-year search for fourteen of her relatives who disappeared in Kosovo in 1998, during a period of high-intensity conflict involving the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). "Serbs were kidnapped everywhere," Bozanic stressed.

Bozanic, who actually met with those responsible for her family members' disappearances, expressed frustration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is prosecuting Balkan war crimes. Citing repeated contact with Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte. Bozanic explained that authorities were hesitant to assert jurisdiction in the cases of the families represented by her organization.

"I wanted to achieve something while people in my family were still alive, but Carla Del Ponte answered that they cannot arrest anybody or indict anybody because they have no evidence," Bozanic said. "I asked what they considered as evidence. I was told that if there were no bodies, there was no evidence."

Tomanovic discussed the work of her organization, formed in 2000 to bring organized power to many individual cases languishing before international and local authorities. Today, 1,303 families of those kidnapped since 1998 in Kosovo are represented. "We are a non-governmental humanitarian organization and our only goal is to find the truth about the fate of our loved ones," Tomanovic said in her testimony.

"All of these kidnappings and abductions had the same goal, which was the cleansing of Kosovo and Metohija of the Serbs," Tomanovic said. "It has been thousands of nights for some mothers who have not slept at all since their loved ones disappeared. There are children who [are] waiting for their fathers. There is so much pain and suffering, and this anxiety is more horrible than any truth."

Tomanovic's husband, Dr. Andrija Tomanovic, is one of the victims her organization represents. A popular full-time professor and vice president of the Red Cross of Serbia and Kosovo, Dr. Tomanovic was kidnapped in June 1999 at a Pristina Hospital, supposedly guarded by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).

Tomanovic echoed Bozanic's discontent with the responsiveness of international authorities. After reporting her husband's kidnaping to KFOR and UNMIK officials, Tomanovic said she received a warm welcome, but limited direct action with no result.

"I have to emphasize that we have a very active cooperation with the UNMIK office in Belgrade, but we are not satisfied with this cooperation because there is no result," Tomanovic said. "The UNMIK has not helped Serbs, not even once, to resolve at least one case. I believe that we can find the truth very quickly if those people who kidnapped our loved ones are arrested."

Maric added that his group has had no direct contact with the Croatia military on their cases.

Chairman Smith responded, "If we are to have faith in the military of Croatia, the least they can do is be absolutely aggressive, thorough and transparent in resolving missing persons issues as it relates to their military."

Adjourning the hearing, Chairman Smith indicated the Commission would hold additional sessions addressing the missing persons issue elsewhere in the war-torn areas of Southeast Europe.

Subsequently the Commission scheduled a hearing, Missing Persons in Southeast Europe (Part 2), for September 18, 2003. The hearing was cancelled due to a hurricane which swept the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. The scheduled witnesses, all ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, have been asked to provide written testimony for the combined record.

All Commission hearings and briefings are open to the public. Interested media and other individuals are encouraged to attend.

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.

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    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: PUBLIC DIPLOMACY, DEMOCRACY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP An Approach for the 21st Century Thursday, December 5, 2019 10:00 a.m. Longworth House Office Building Room 1334 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission For more than a century, the United States has advanced human rights, economic, and security policy goals in Europe by cultivating people-to-people ties across the Atlantic. More than 500 heads of state, 100 Members of Congress, and thousands of professionals have participated in U.S. Government-sponsored exchanges, including the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, while public and private organizations have hosted similar programs to bring leaders together.    Witnesses at the hearing will explore the origins and role of professional exchanges and other public diplomacy programs that strengthen relationships with U.S. allies in the face of shared challenges including eroding trust in democratic institutions, demographic shifts, technological advancements, and evolving security threats. In particular, the hearing will focus on international exchange initiatives that strengthen democratic institutions by targeting young and diverse leaders, encouraging civic engagement, and fostering social inclusion and cohesion in the OSCE region.  The following witnesses are scheduled to participate: Lora Berg, Senior Fellow, Leadership Programs, German Marshall Fund of the United States Cordell Carter, II, Executive Director, Socrates Program, The Aspen Institute   Stacie Walters Fujii, Chair, American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL)   Photo credit: German Marshall Fund of the United States

  • Corruption in the Western Balkans Focus of Upcoming Helsinki Commission Briefing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following briefing: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Corruption as a Brake on Balkan Recovery Tuesday, December 3, 2019 2:00 p.m. Cannon House Office Building Room 210 Live Webcast: www.facebook.com/HelsinkiCommission As the countries of the Western Balkans continue to seek the integration that promises stability and prosperity, the inability to genuinely confront and overcome official corruption through good governance measures has undoubtedly slowed their progress. Foreign investment—vital to improved economic performance—is discouraged by a business climate characterized by weak adherence to the rule of law.  As a result, the countries of the region are witnessing a “brain drain” as the most talented and well-educated leave.  They also remain vulnerable to malign foreign investors, including Russia, that pursue political influence rather than profits.    Current political leaders have little incentive to make further democratic changes that could lead to their removal from power; they instead rely on lingering nationalist sentiments to continue benefiting from the corrupt practices they tolerate. At this Helsinki Commission briefing, experts from Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will analyze the gaps in governance that facilitate the inflow of “corrosive capital” and subsequent foreign meddling in the Western Balkans, and encourage an exodus of the best and brightest from the region. Panelists also will suggest specific ways to strengthen economic resiliency, democratic transition, and the possibilities for integration.          Panelists scheduled to participate include: Martina Hrvolova, Program Officer for Europe and Eurasia, Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) Igor Novakovic, Research Director, International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) in Serbia Misha Popovikj, Project Coordinator - Researcher, Institute for Democracy Societas Civilis Skopje (IDSCS) in North Macedonia   Igor Stojanovic, Researcher with the Center for Civic Initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • The Importance of the Open Skies Treaty

    The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders. The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, explored the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also assessed Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluated the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia.

  • Helsinki Commission and Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment to Hold Joint Hearing on Open Skies Treaty

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment have announced the following hearing: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE OPEN SKIES TREATY Tuesday, November 19, 2019 10:00 a.m. Rayburn House Office Building Room 2172 Live Webcast: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission The Trump administration reportedly is considering withdrawing the United States from the Open Skies Treaty, a key arms control agreement that has enjoyed bipartisan support for decades. The treaty underpins security and stability in Europe by providing for unarmed aerial observation flights over its 34 signatories. The treaty allows even small countries greater awareness of military activities around them—more crucial than ever given the Kremlin’s demonstrated willingness to violate established borders. The principles of military transparency embodied by the treaty flow from the same fundamental commitments that led to the creation of today’s Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Open Skies Consultative Commission, which oversees implementation of the treaty, meets monthly at OSCE headquarters in Vienna, Austria. Witnesses at the hearing, organized jointly with the Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment, will explore the continued contributions of the Open Skies Treaty to the security of the United States, as well as its benefits to U.S. allies and partners. Witnesses also will assess Russia’s partial non-compliance with elements of the treaty and strategies to address this challenge, and evaluate the implications of a possible U.S. withdrawal on security and stability in Europe and Eurasia. Witnesses scheduled to participate include: Jon Wolfsthal, Director, Nuclear Crisis Group; Senior Advisor, Global Zero; Former Special Assistant to the President for National Security; Former Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Arms Control at the National Security Council Damian Leader, Ph.D., Professor, New York University; former Chief Arms Control Delegate for the United States Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Amy Woolf, Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy, Congressional Research Services Witnesses may be added.  All members of the media wishing to attend the hearing must be accredited through the House Radio-Television Correspondents’ Gallery. For more information on accreditation, please contact the gallery at 202-225-5214.  

  • U.S. Helsinki Commission Hosts Staff Briefing on World’s Biggest Data Set of Hate Crime Statistics

    On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, the U.S. Helsinki Commission hosted a congressional staff briefing on addressing hate crimes in Europe and the United States. The event was moderated by Dr. Mischa Thompson, Director of Global Partnerships, Policy and Innovation at the U.S. Helsinki Commission. The Commission’s guest speaker, Cristina Finch, the Head of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Department at the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) provided an overview of hate crimes statistics in Europe and North America. She described the efforts that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has made to address hate crimes and hate incidents in the region. Finch also discussed the commitments made by the 57 OSCE participating States to document, investigate, and prosecute hate crimes, as well as the tools and best practices available to assist countries in meeting their commitments. ODIHR’s Annual Report on Hate Crime combines official government reports submitted by 33 OSCE participating States with an additional 108 reports from 135 civil society organizations. In 2018, 5,258 hate crime incidents were reported to ODIHR. As Finch described it, this volume of information makes the report “the world’s biggest data set on hate crime.” The full 2018 Hate Incidents data set will be published on November 15, 2019. According to Finch, accurate recording of hate crimes by the police remains a serious issue. “In many countries police do not record hate crimes as a specific category in a systemic way,” she noted. “This means that information is missing, which impedes investigation, prosecution, prevention and policy making.” Other serious obstacles to publishing accurate data exist. For example, estimates indicate that 90 percent of hate crimes are not reported by victims to the police at all. Promoting safe, inclusive, and equitable societies is a priority of the Helsinki Commission for the 116th Congress. Commission efforts on inclusion have included briefings, hearings, legislation, and inter-parliamentary initiatives in the U.S. Congress and Europe.  Additionally, Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance and has called for increased efforts to address hate crimes in the region.

  • At What Cost?

    Sparked by the recent Turkish military offensive in northeastern Syria, increased tensions between the United States and Turkey have reignited the debate about the future of U.S.-Turkish bilateral relations. The Helsinki Commission convened this hearing to discuss how the United States should respond to the Turkish Government’s continuing abuse of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Expert witnesses at the hearing reviewed prominent cases of politically-motivated prosecution, failures of due process, and prospects for judicial reform as they relate to Turkey’s commitments as a member of both the OSCE and NATO. The panel also evaluated President Erdogan’s plan to return millions of Syrian refugees to their war-torn country or push them to Europe, and the human consequences of his military incursion into Syria. Presiding over the hearing, Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson affirmed that as co-chair for the Caucus on U.S.-Turkey Relations & Turkish Americans he supports the people of Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish alliance. He cautioned, however, that President Erdogan’s actions threaten to undermine that alliance and damage the security of the region. Rep. Marc Veasey noted that Turkey is being “torn between two worlds”: one of democracy and one of autocracy. Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Steve Cohen were also present at the hearing. The Commission heard testimony from Gonul Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED); Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor at Lehigh University; Eric Schwartz, the President of Refugees International; and Talip Kucukcan, professor of sociology at Marmara University. Dr. Tol testified that “most freedoms under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been dramatically curtailed” but counseled that Turkey “is not a fullblown dictatorship.” The Turkish government has targeted activists, journalists, and opposition politicians with “trumped-up terrorism charges and “largely criminalized Kurdish political expression.” She highlighted the opposition’s recent victories in mayoral elections as “a testament to the peoples of Turkey, the great majority of whom refuse to give up on the idea of democratic rule.” Dr. Tol further urged the United States to view “the Kurdish question…[as] a matter of democratization and human rights” for the Turkish state. Ms. Tahiroglu explained the deterioration of the rule of law under Erdogan’s government. According to her testimony, Erdogan’s administration has politicized the judiciary and rendered it “a main weapon against government critics and opponents” through repressive laws and false terrorism charges. She noted key judicial cases against civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, professors, U.S. citizens, and employees of U.S. consulates in the country. Ms. Tahiroglu testified that the breakdown of the rule of law in Turkey matters for U.S. interests because it has swept up U.S. citizens, “fuels anti-Americanism,” and “embolden[s] Turkey’s aggressive policies abroad by suppressing dissenting voices.” Dr. Barkey focused his testimony on the Turkish government’s suppression of the struggle for recognition of Kurdish social and political identity. Barkey explained the significance of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)—Turkey’s second largest opposition party—in providing an opportunity for Turkey’s Kurdish population to participate in Turkish politics. “From that perspective, they have been very, very successful,” Barkey assessed. “It may have been far too successful for its own good.” Dr. Barkey detailed President Erdogan’s “relentless campaign to dismantle and delegitimize the HDP.” Mr. Schwartz spoke about the humanitarian implications of Turkey’s incursion into northeastern Syria. The reports of human rights abuses and civilian deaths are cause for deep concern, he said. He criticized the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria instead of implementing a strategic departure. Schwartz concluded with a recommendation for the United States to support locally based NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to populations by the Turkish operation. Dr. Kucukcan reminded the audience that Turkey’s incursion occurred with President Donald Trump’s consent. The incursion, he noted, serves to protect Turkey’s national security and preserve the territorial integrity of Syria.  Dr. Kucukcan disputed that Turkey plans “ethnic cleansing” or “demographic engineering in places where [military] operations took place.”

  • Hastings and Cardin Condemn Mob Attack on Budapest Community Center

    WASHINGTON—Following Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora, a small Jewish community center that provides office space to civil society groups in Budapest, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (FL-20) and Ranking Member Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) issued the following statements: “Wednesday’s mob attack on Aurora is an alarming escalation of violence toward minorities and civil society groups in Hungary. This second attack by paramilitary-style extremists in less than a month sends a frightening message: Authorities cannot, or will not, protect you,” said Chairman Hastings. “A decade ago, far-right extremists in Hungary orchestrated dozens of violent attacks, murdering six Hungarians including five-year-old Robert Csorba. The Government of Hungary must not allow such a tragedy to occur again.” “The Hungarian Government may boast of a ‘zero-tolerance for anti-Semitism’ policy abroad, but in reality, in Budapest they traffic in anti-Semitic tropes, honor fascist-era leaders and ideologues, and stoke hatred of migrants and Muslims,” said Sen. Cardin, who also serves as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance. “Actions speak louder than words. I hope that available photographs of the mob will aid law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators, and I commend the district’s newly elected mayor for visiting Aurora and seeking to ensure its safety.” Marom, a Hungarian Jewish association, established and runs Aurora Community Center, an umbrella organization that provides office space to small civil society groups including the Roma Press Center, migrant aid, and Pride Parade organizers. In Wednesday’s attack, the mob burned a rainbow flag and branded a para-military logo onto the premises. On September 26, the center also was attacked and vandalized by extremists. Under the Orbán government, the conditions for independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Hungary have deteriorated. Over the past two years, Hungarian authorities have accused Marom of administrative violations ranging from mismatched dates on official documents to, most recently, lacking an appropriate agreement with the center’s landlord. In 2018, Hungary passed a law establishing a 25 percent tax on organizations which engage in “propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” It is a tax on government-disfavored speech. Hungary also adopted amendments to its "law on aiding illegal migration" that make handing out know-your-rights leaflets punishable by up to one year in prison. In 2017, Hungary adopted a Russian-style "foreign agent" law which, according to the U.S. Department of State, “unfairly burdens a targeted group of Hungarian civil society organizations, many of which focus on fighting corruption and protecting human rights and civil liberties.” The bill was proposed by the far-right wing party Jobbik. In 2014, armed police carried out raids on 13 civil society organizations, seizing computers and documents for alleged financial misconduct. No charges were ever brought against the NGOs. Between 2008 and 2010, at least six people were murdered, many others were injured, and whole communities were terrorized in a series of attacks by right-wing extremists.  Maria Balog was shot in her own home in a middle-of-the-night raid that also wounded her 13-year-old daughter. Jeno Koka was shot as he got in his car to go to work. Five-year-old Robert Csorba and his father were killed by sniper fire while attempting to escape an arson attack on their home.

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