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Remarks by Ambassador Clifford G. Bond at the International Forum Bosnia

It is good to be back in Sarajevo again and I feel very much at home in this city and this country. When Dr. Mahmutcehajic invited me to speak at today’s conference on “American Policy in the Western Balkans,” I suggested that it might be best if I provided a perspective on the on-going work of the Helsinki Commission, which is where I am currently serving, and its impact on U.S. policy in the Balkans. The Commission is a unique institution made up of members of the U.S. Congress. It is not an easy task to generalize about the views of Commission members since each representative and senator is independent. Those who serve on the Commission do so because they share a commitment to human rights and democracy, and want to have an impact on U.S. engagement on these issues especially in the OSCE area, but beyond as well.

Congress’ role in foreign policy, as in other areas, is to ensure that policy reflects the democratically expressed will of the American people. It balances the expertise of diplomats at the State Department and other Executive Branch agencies with a consideration of what the public will support. This is one reason why U.S. foreign policy has taken a more comprehensive view of security that includes democratic development and human rights, as opposed to a more “realpolik” view of the world. This was evident in the Balkans throughout the 1990s. In response to conflict in Bosnia, for example, many in Congress pressed the Bush and later Clinton Administration for a more activist and a more interventionist response. Members of Congress, including members of the Commission at that time, were among the first in government to advocate not only for efforts to contain the conflict but for decisive action, including the use of force if necessary, to stop it.

Whenever I addressed an audience in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in the past, the question invariably arose of whether the Balkans remained a priority for the U.S. Obviously the region receives much less attention today than it did 10 years ago. But it would be incorrect to say that the Balkans is ignored and developments on the ground are not being followed on Capitol Hill. There remains an understanding within Congress that the work of the international community is incomplete in this region and that the states of the western Balkans deserve to be integrated into Europe and Euro-Atlantic institutions. This has sustained Congressional support for NATO enlargement and the process of EU integration of the western Balkans, a view that runs even deeper among members of the Helsinki Commission. Moreover, at the initiative of representatives of the more than 300,000 members of the Bosnian-American diaspora, a new bipartisan Bosnian Caucus is being set up within Congress to focus on and support issues of importance to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region.

The Helsinki Process and the Commission

Now let me say a few words about the work of the Helsinki Commission. As I said, it is an independent agency created by Congress in 1976 to advance human rights and encourage compliance with the principles of the Helsinki Final Act, particularly its human rights commitments. The Commission is composed of members of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Successive agreements within the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have expanded these common Helsinki standards into a whole framework of human and humanitarian rights. These have come to be termed the “human dimension” of the OSCE’s work. These agreements are not treaties, but political commitments which all participating states, including Bosnia and its neighbors, have adopted on the basis of consensus. Significantly, however, these same states have agreed that these are issues of direct and legitimate concern to all participating states of the OSCE and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned. Democracy and human rights are thus matters of international concern.

This has created a Helsinki process of bilateral and multilateral dialogue that includes the active participation of NGOs as well as governments in assessing the level of compliance with these common commitments. One element of that process is an annual review of implementation which takes place in Warsaw. I participated in the 2006 session and can assure you that it provided a forum for frank and open exchange of how our countries are or are not living up to our OSCE commitments. My own government faced serious criticism in terms of some aspects of its conduct of the fight against terrorism.

Since 1989, Europe has undergone an historic transformation and the OSCE has played a vital role in this process of transition to democracy, particularly in the post conflict situation in the western Balkans. Much of this work has been driven on the ground by its field missions, such as the one headed here in Sarajevo by Ambassador Davidson. The Commission believes strongly that this work remains critical to the states of the western Balkans in helping them to overcome a legacy of communism and war. A permanent democratic transformation in the western Balkans will require a rethinking of the overall conditions of society with an aim of protecting rights and instituting peaceful change. Public debate needs to be expanded beyond a discussion of group rights to the rights of the individual and improving the overall quality and dignity of life, which is the essence of the OSCE’s human dimension. This process has not advanced nearly as far as it must to build modern societies in the region.

Integration through Consolidating Democracy and Rule of Law

Let me now review some of the areas of particular interest to the Commission and its members and where it will be pushing to influence U.S. policy in future. These are areas where I think more public debate and more active local NGO engagement with governments in the region will be essential.

As I said, the Commission has been a strong advocate for the integration of the region into Euro-Atlantic institutions. This remains the best long term strategy for securing both peace and prosperity. The key to that integration is consolidating democracy, rule of law and good governance. There has been tremendous progress in this regard, but complacency must be avoided.

Political leaders in Bosnia have come to realize that reforming their Dayton-era constitution in ways that make the government more functional and compatible with EU requirements is a necessary step. The U.S. Senate adopted a resolution (S. Res 400, 109th Congress) last year voicing support for this constitutional reform process. It did not advocate for specific changes, which must be decided by the people of Bosnia, not the international community. From the perspective of the Helsinki Commission, however, we think it critical that reforms, in addition to changes in the structure of government, guarantee the human and civic rights of all the citizens of BiH. As you know, the current constitutional provisions restrict Serbs living in the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats living in the RS, and non-constituent peoples, no matter in what part of the country they reside, from running for the post of BiH presidency. This is a violation of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document. This inability of all citizens to fully participate in BiH’s political life should be corrected.

If we look at elections as another benchmark of progress in consolidating democracy, we can see that virtually all countries in the western Balkans are approaching the international standards for free and fair elections. Last October’s elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were judged by the OSCE to be in line with international standards. Similarly the general elections held recently in Serbia were judged by OSCE as being conducted in a free and fair manner.

Going beyond the technical conduct of these elections, however, the results and the tenor of the elections in the region are a matter of concern. In Bosnia nationalistic campaign rhetoric approached pre-war levels and polarized the electorate along ethnic lines. In Serbia the strong showing of the Serbian Radical Party and statements by other politicians indicated a lack of willingness among a large part of the population to come to terms with the crimes committed during the Milosevic era. Hopefully, over time, democratic forces in the region will prevail and a true reconciliation can be achieved. Without a meaningful break with the past and a full recognition in Serbia and the Republika Srpska (RS) of the crimes that were committed during the Milosevic era, however, this task will be immensely more difficult to accomplish.

The decision of the International Court of Justice on February 26 does not change the need for this recognition or absolve Serbia or the Republika Srpska of responsibility in this regard. The ICJ confirmed an act of genocide was committed and that Serbia was in a unique position to prevent it. By failing to do so, Serbia violated the Genocide Convention and continues to violate it by not bringing the perpetrators of that genocide to justice. The court’s decision also makes clear that the full responsibility for conducting that genocide lies with the leadership and members of the military in the RS at that time.

Unfinished Business

It was to bring war criminals to justice and to determine the objective truth of what occurred in the Balkans that the Helsinki Commission was an early proponent of the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It has pressed all countries in the region to fully cooperate with the Tribunal. The Commission has welcomed the establishment of the War Crimes Chamber within the BiH State Court, and the decision to transfer more cases from The Hague to the region for local prosecution. Despite building this indigenous capacity to conduct trials, there is a strongly felt sense within the Commission that the work of the International Tribunal should not be concluded until Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are brought to justice. The real message that Belgrade should take from the ICJ’s verdict on February 26 and convey to these indicted war criminals is that: “your time is up.”

Other consequences of the war are still being dealt with. More than ten years after Dayton, additional mass graves continue to be uncovered. The Helsinki Commission recently organized a briefing on Capitol Hill at which Amor Masovic reported on the work of the State Missing Persons Commission. We believe that international support for determining the identification of these missing persons must continue.

The right of refugees and displaced persons from the Balkan conflicts to return home has not been fully guaranteed. The 2005 Sarajevo Declaration on Refugee Return and Integration was a notable achievement in this regard, but implementation of this trilateral arrangement has been too slow. The Commission has urged Bosnia and Croatia and Serbia in particular to intensify efforts to ensure durable solutions for resettlement are found and displaced persons and refugees given access to all rights, including the right to property and citizenship. The legal issues involved are complicated, but with political will these can be managed and refugees re-integrated into society.

In the midst of war in the 1990’s the region was confronted with a new and dangerous form of organized crime – human trafficking. Considerable progress has been made in the region in combating this modern day form of slavery, but even greater efforts are required. Trafficking also needs to be looked upon as not just as one field of criminal activity, but as part of a wider issue of corruption in the region. While criminals organize this activity, it is corruption that allows them to get away with it or go unpunished when caught.

Preventing Future Conflict

A fundamental principle behind the Helsinki Final Act is that there can be no true security without a commitment to democracy and human rights. Addressing the root causes of intolerance and discrimination are therefore essential to preventing future conflict in the region. The OSCE has done pioneering work in this area and is developing programs to prevent hate crimes and discrimination by confronting the sources of intolerance and by strengthening respect for ethnic and religious diversity. In a series of high level conferences the OSCE has sought to encourage states to collect hate crimes statistics, share information and strengthen education to combat intolerance as well as increase training of law enforcement officials. This is clearly a subject of importance to the entire region and governments should be cooperating in this work.

We want to encourage regional participation at the next high level meeting on tolerance to be held in June in Bucharest. The Romanian government is now putting together an agenda which will cover racism, anti-Semitism and intolerance against Muslims and Christians as well as relevant programs to combat this discrimination. We want the conference to consider ways that our societies can move beyond tolerance to acceptance and recognition of diversity. I hope we can count on broad government and NGO representation from the region, but particularly from Bosnia, at the conference. Bosnia can and should be a leader in promoting dialogue among religious groups. We would very much like to see Bosnia host an OSCE event on this theme in future.

At the Warsaw human dimension’s meeting last year there was only one Bosnian NGO represented. This was the National Council of Roma, but its participation was very significant for us. The plight of the Roma has been a special concern of the Helsinki Commission. No group within the former Yugoslavia has faced discrimination and exclusion so broadly as the Roma have. They continue to be deprived of housing and property rights, face difficulties in accessing personal documents and establishing citizenship. Many have no access to healthcare or education. In view of this widespread discrimination, not just within the Balkans but throughout Europe, the OSCE has sought to address the specific problems of the Roma. Your local Bosnian Helsinki Committee has also recently translated a human rights manual into Romani and I hope this will assist this marginalized community to assert and defend its rights.

Eight governments of central and southeastern Europe have taken their own political initiative, titled the “Decade of Roma Inclusion,” to close the gap in welfare and living conditions between the Roma and non-Roma in their societies. Their aim is to break the cycle of poverty and exclusion by 2015. Several of the western Balkan states are active in this initiative. My understanding is that Bosnia is not yet a participant. It should be. One way to judge a society is by how well it protects the rights of those least able to realize them on their own. Any sincere effort to create modern, rights-based societies in the Balkans cannot overlook the plight and abuse of the civil, political, economic and social rights of the Roma.

Among fundamental freedoms is the right to religious expression and belief. This is an issue of deep concern to Commission members. The right to practice your faith is no more secure than your readiness to acknowledge the right of others to practice theirs. Since the fall of communism various laws have been adopted in the region to provide for religious freedom, but these have unfortunately had the effect in some respects of restricting this fundamental right. They set numerical thresholds for the registration of religious groups, discriminate in favor traditional faiths, and place limits on free speech and proselytizing. These restrictions are particularly burdensome to new religious denominations and can lead to harassment against and stigmatization of their members. Albania, in contrast, has adopted a progressive law which provides for a neutral registration system that is applied universally. This is a model others in the region should consider adopting. Meanwhile, there is a need to step up efforts to respect the sanctity and ensure the safety of places of worship that have been targets of ethnically based violence in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo. Governments need to adopt a “zero-tolerance” approach in responding to such provocations.

Finally let me address the situation of Kosovo. The pending decision on the final status of Kosovo has given rise to much anxiety and apprehension in the region. Much of the debate on Kosovo has focused on the larger issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination. Within Congress and even within the Helsinki Commission reaching a consensus on the right outcome in Kosovo is difficult, but two things are clear. First, there is no connection between Kosovo’s future and the recognized sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Second, whatever form a Kosovo settlement takes, the fundamental issue in the Commission’s view is whether or not it improves the respect for human rights, especially the rights of those people belonging to the Serb, Roma and other minority communities. Those rights include the protection of property and the right of return for displaced persons. Any settlement should also encourage a process of integration and inclusion of these minority communities within a broader Kosovo society. From this perspective the proposed plan of UN Special Envoy Ahtissari can serves as a solid basis for compromise. Even if Belgrade and Pristina cannot agree on the issue of status, they should be engaged in serious negotiations to protect the rights of these minority communities. But whatever becomes of Kosovo, the OSCE and other international human rights standards must apply there and the OSCE must be fully involved in monitoring implementation of any settlement to assure these rights are respected.

Conclusion

My remarks have focused on some areas of concern, but let me say in conclusion that the region of the western Balkans has come a long way since the 1990’s. The international community has made a substantial investment in the peace, stability and reconstruction in the region, and we welcome this progress. Slovenia is a full-fledged member of NATO and the EU. Croatia is well on the road to membership in both, and Macedonia and Albania are making progress in the right direction. In a welcome development at the end of last year, Bosnia, Serbia and newly independent Montenegro were invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace. The regional trajectory is positive. More importantly, the EU and NATO have made a political commitment to include all of the western Balkan states into Euro-Atlantic institutions, and recognized that Europe will be incomplete without your countries. That does not relieve you of the responsibility to meet the conditions of membership in these institutions, but it does offer a bright future for the region.

The issues your societies now face are perhaps less dramatic than achieving peace was a decade and more ago. These are issues of complying with human rights norms and improving the quality of life and the relationship between the individual and his or her government. These issues should be a matter of open, public debate in local and regional fora like this one. For too long nationalism and an “us versus them” mentality have dominated public discussion and driven politics in the region. It is time politicians on all sides put down the megaphones and drop the rhetoric that they have been using to polarize the situation. A new dialogue based on an open discussion of these human issues needs to replace it. This is essential to preventing future conflict, promoting economic and social development and sustaining peace. Only political will on the part of governments and party leaders and the full engagement of NGOs and citizens in this Helsinki process of dialogue can get this job done and complete the transition of the western Balkan states into permanent and stable democracies.

 

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