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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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  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest January 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Welcomes Passage of Trap Provision in 2022 National Defense Authorization Act

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) today welcomed the passage of the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) provision as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2022. “By co-opting and undermining the rule of law to harass and intimidate dissidents and political opponents, corrupt regimes threaten our national security,” said Chairman Cardin. “Our provision will make it U.S. policy to fight exploitation of INTERPOL, including by naming and shaming member states that abuse its mechanisms. This amendment will protect the United States, our allies, and all those fighting or fleeing authoritarian regimes from extraterritorial and extrajudicial abuse.” “We’ve seen time and again how corrupt dictators take advantage of INTERPOL to intimidate and harass those who expose their immoral deeds, even after they have fled their homes and their country in search of safety,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The TRAP provision will protect these dissidents and ensure that our own institutions are not used against us—or them.” “There is no reason for any democracy, especially the United States, to be forced to play a part in authoritarian regimes’ blatant abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices,” said Sen. Wicker. “I am pleased Congress has taken action to name publicly the abusers, such as Russia and China, and prevent American law enforcement from having to do the dirty work of these repressive autocrats.” “INTERPOL should enable us to crack down on criminals worldwide,” said Rep. Wilson. “Instead, the criminals have taken over the institution, using it to target those who oppose them. The TRAP provision will protect the United States from this abuse and ensure that we do everything we can to restore the rule of law to INTERPOL.” “Increasing transparency and accountability at INTERPOL underscores the bipartisan commitment of the United States Senate to push back against countries, large or small, seeking to distort legitimate law enforcement cooperation to instead pursue political opponents or personal vendettas,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This new provision will strengthen protections for human rights defenders, political dissidents, and journalists, and pave the way for the international community to join the United States in pressing for reforms and standing against the abuse of INTERPOL Red Notices by China and Russia, among others.” The Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act was introduced in 2021 in the Senate by Sen. Wicker and Chairman Cardin and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Co-Chairman Cohen and Rep. Wilson. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States name the worst abusers of INTERPOL and examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest November 2021

  • 30 Years After Ovcara

    By Robert Hand, Senior Policy Advisor On November 20, 1991, after the fall of the city of Vukovar in Croatia, militant Serb forces removed 265 ill and injured Croats from a hospital. They were taken to the nearby Ovčara farm southeast of Vukovar, where they were abused before being shot and killed, with their bodies dumped in a mass grave. In addition to wounded members of the Croatian armed forces were civilians, including some women and children.   The Helsinki Commission strongly supported the international effort to prosecute those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the former Yugoslavia, including those most responsible for the crime at Ovčara, which took place early in a series of conflicts associated with Yugoslavia’s disintegration throughout the 1990s.  Many obstacles stood in the way, but after years of persistent effort justice prevailed. However, malicious acts supporting territorial aggression continue in the OSCE region and elsewhere. When remembering Ovčara, it is important to acknowledge the brave few in Serbia—civil society advocates, political activists, journalists, lawyers and judges, and everyday citizens—who consistently have refused to associate themselves with the terrible crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, and seek to this day not only justice but a needed acknowledgement of reality in the face of continued denial and revisionism. A wider acknowledgement led by those holding power today will mean a better future for Serbia and its neighbors tomorrow.

  • HELSINKI COMMISSIONERS JOIN OSCE PA MEETING ON AFGHANISTAN, DEBATE POLICY RESPONSES

    On November 4, 2021, more than 40 members of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) met remotely to discuss the current security challenges posed by developments in Afghanistan and the future of OSCE engagement with Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule. Since 2003, Afghanistan has been an OSCE Partner for Cooperation and shares a border with several OSCE countries. The debate, which was attended by seven members of the Helsinki Commission, took place as part of the OSCE PA’s annual Autumn Meeting. Each year, the Autumn Meeting focuses on debating one or more currently relevant issues confronting the OSCE region.  This year’s Autumn Meeting was originally planned to be in Dublin, Ireland, but a resurging COVID-19 pandemic forced the OSCE PA to rely on emergency procedures that allow for statutory meetings to be conducted remotely. OSCE PA Leaders Outline Challenges Posed by Afghanistan OSCE PA President Margaret Cederfelt opened the debate with an overview of the challenges presented by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. While three OSCE countries—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan—share a border with Afghanistan, developments there also have serious implications for the rest of the OSCE participating States. The worsening humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s historical connections to terrorism, the negative economic fallout, the potential impact on neighboring countries, and deteriorating human rights, particularly for women and girls, were all of concern. “Those who will suffer most from this is, of course, the ordinary people,” President Cederfelt emphasized, while highlighting the impending economic turmoil Afghanistan faces. “It is essential that human security is protected by safeguarding the fundamental rights of all Afghans.” President Cederfelt also underscored the need for international cooperation while addressing this situation, given its global security implications. The three leaders of the PA General Committees highlighted aspects of the crisis related to their specific mandates. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Richard Hudson, who chairs the General Committee on Political Affairs and Security, noted, “Perhaps most alarming is the return of an international terrorist threat from Afghanistan. He also highlighted the production and trade of narcotics and illegal drugs backed by the Taliban as a serious challenge with global implications, thanks to major trafficking routes. “The security situation in Afghanistan is intrinsically linked with that of the OSCE region as a whole—but it will first and most immediately affect Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central Asia,” he said. “We must all be especially concerned about threats to the three OSCE participating States that have borders with Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. This is perhaps the area in which our organization can have the greatest and most immediate impact." The other two general committee chairs shared their concerns as well. Pere Joan Pons of Spain, who chairs the General Committee on Economia Affairs, Science, Technology, and Environment, highlighted Afghanistan’s current economic and environmental challenges, especially given the country’s vulnerability in the face of climate change. Sereine Mauborgne of France, who chairs the General Committee on Democracy, Human Rights, and Humanitarian Questions, discussed the serious human rights violations faced by women, girls, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, many Afghans face urgent or extreme food and security issues; the Taliban lacks the capability to provide either for the Afghan people. Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center Tuula Yrjölä discussed Afghanistan’s relationship to the OSCE as a Partner for Cooperation and the potential role of the OSCE role in addressing the situation. She concluded that Afghanistan’s partnership status in the OSCE was based on shared values; its future may be in question under a Taliban government. Helsinki Commissioners Participate in the General Debate Following the introductory remarks, six members of the Helsinki Commission—including all four senior commission leaders—took the floor to voice their concerns and engage with other parliamentarians. Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin, who also serves as the Head of the U.S. Delegation and the OSCE PA Special Representative on Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Intolerance, expressed disappointment at how quickly the democratic government and institutions in Afghanistan deteriorated, despite years of investment and support. “One of the prime reasons was corruption,” explained Chairman Cardin. The rights of women and girls and ensuring humanitarian assistance reaches populations in need were two areas that he insisted be of focus as international efforts move forward. Media freedom was of particular concern for Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen. “Lower-level Taliban forces threaten and harass journalists,” he stated. “RFE/RL has reported that over the past weeks, its remaining journalists have been questioned by armed Taliban and door-to-door searched have been conducted looking for journalists affiliated with the United States.” Media freedom is among the fundamental freedoms the OSCE seeks to protect, and Co-Chairman Cohen insisted the Taliban must be held responsible for violating these rights. Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker, who also serves as an OSCE PA Vice President, shared legislation he is sponsoring in Congress that seeks to strengthen the American response to Afghanistan and reiterated the dangers that religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan currently face. Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson highlighted the dangers of terrorism and the oppressive rule of the Taliban. “It cannot be business as usual with the Taliban,” he stated.  “Together, we must use our leverage to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist haven devoid of human rights.” Chairman Cardin, Sen. Wicker, and Rep. Wilson all expressed concern over Afghanistan’s status as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation. “Before we recognize any representative of Afghanistan in our assembly, we should make sure that they will adhere to the principles of the Helsinki Final Act,” Chairman Cardin stated. Rep. Wilson argued that Afghanistan’s partner status should be reconsidered, and Sen. Wicker also emphasized the importance of the values shared by OSCE participating States and Partners for Cooperation. “I would hope that it is our position going forward that the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan not be recognized as an OSCE Partner for Cooperation,” Sen. Wicker said. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore focused on the dangers for women and girls and the human rights violations they face. Despite advances made in women’s rights in Afghanistan during the past two decades, the return of Taliban rule has brought a resurgence of violence and restrictions, endangering the lives of women throughout the country. Many have fled Afghanistan, fearing for their safety, while others have remained to fight for their country. While Rep. Moore strongly advocated for supporting resettlement efforts, she also emphasized that resettlement was a last resort. “We must continue to press for the protection of these women in their own country,” she said. Ms. Moore also proposed that the OSCE PA create and maintain a project to monitor and support Afghanistan’s female parliamentarians. Helsinki Commissioner Rep. Ruben Gallego stressed the importance of aiding Afghans still in Afghanistan. “We must find ways to support Afghans in-country who are bravely calling for progress, and we must stand up for the human rights of those who suffer at the hands of the Taliban,” he said. Rep. Gallego further argued that the international community must do more than simply aid in the evacuation of those fleeing the Taliban’s rule. “We must also ensure that those who have been evacuated have long-term support in the resettlement process. The United States must do its part in accepting the bulk of Afghan refugees, and I have personally pushed in Congress to provide Afghans with the long-term resources they need to settle into a new life,” he stated, and asked all the participating parliamentarians to urge their countries to do the same. OSCE Efforts Moving Forward Throughout the debate, which highlighted various vulnerable populations and severe security threats that must be addressed in the future, one recurring theme was the need for international cooperation. While President Cederfelt began the meeting by observing that it will be impossible to know the future, Rep. Gallego expressed one certainty. “The end of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan does not mean we will turn a blind eye to Afghanistan’s people or the security of the region,” he said.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Observer Mission at Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk

    WASHINGTON—In light of yesterday’s termination of the activities of the OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk on the Russian-Ukrainian border, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “By forcing the closure of the OSCE Observer Mission on Ukraine’s border, despite clear and continued support from other OSCE States for the mission, the Kremlin is once again trying to blind the international community to the reality of its aggression against Ukraine.  The mission regularly observed and reported suspicious movements at the border. “Rather than blocking OSCE instruments, Russia needs to cease its war against Ukraine, including reversing its illegal occupation of Crimea.”    The OSCE Observer Mission at the Russian Checkpoints Gukovo and Donetsk was intended to build confidence through increased transparency by observing and reporting on the situation at the international border between Ukraine and Russia. Russia had previously imposed severe restrictions on the observer mission, including limiting movement and prohibiting the use of binoculars or cameras.  Despite these limitations, the mission reported on the movements of more than 24 million people since beginning operations in 2014. It observed more than 100 Russian convoys, along with individuals in military apparel and thousands of other vehicles, crossing the uncontrolled border.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen, Ranking Member Wilson Introduce TRAP Act In House

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) yesterday introduced the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The legislation makes fighting abuse of INTERPOL a key goal of the United States at the organization, mandates that the United States examine its own strategy to fight INTERPOL abuse, and protects the U.S. judicial system from authoritarian abuse. The legislation was introduced by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD) and Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) in the Senate in May 2021. “Using the legal system and INTERPOL to harass political opponents is becoming far too common,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey frequently issue meritless INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s constitution, subjecting international travelers to unnecessary inconvenience. The TRAP Act cracks down on the misuse of these tools to prevent autocrats from harassing their own citizens overseas.” “Dictators are increasingly pursuing political opponents and dissidents across borders. Through surveillance, harassment, and even assassination, these autocrats are attempting to build a world safe for authoritarianism—where speaking out against brutal regimes might destroy your life,” said Rep. Wilson. “It is imperative that we fight back. INTERPOL abuse is one of the worst forms of this transnational repression and I am pleased to introduce the TRAP Act with other Helsinki Commission leaders to curb it.” The Helsinki Commission regularly receives credible reports from political dissidents, human rights defenders, and members of the business community who are the subject of politically-motivated INTERPOL Notices and Diffusions requested by autocratic regimes. These mechanisms, which function effectively as extradition requests, can be based on trumped-up criminal charges and are used to detain, harass, or otherwise persecute individuals for their activism or refusal to acquiesce to corrupt schemes. Russia is among the world’s most prolific abusers of INTERPOL’s Notice and Diffusion mechanisms. Other participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—principally Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkey—and other authoritarian states, such as China, also reportedly target political opponents with INTERPOL requests that violate key provisions of INTERPOL’s Constitution, which obligate the organization to uphold international human rights standards and strictly avoid involvement in politically-motivated charges. One notable example of autocratic leaders using this power to harass their political enemies occurred in Rwanda. Paul Rusesabagina, a staunch critic of the Rwandan government, was arrested while traveling through Dubai after Rwanda asked INTERPOL to issue a Red Notice. Rusesabagina was then returned to Rwanda on false terrorism charges. Turkey’s government also has abused INTERPOL to target Enes Kanter, an NBA basketball player, who lives in the United States. Kanter is an outspoken member of a religious group that largely opposes the Turkish President. Original co-sponsors of the bipartisan bill include Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II (MO-05), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01), Rep. Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), Rep. Gwen Moore (WI-04), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33). Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-07), and Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-03) also are original co-sponsors. 

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