When I was appointed Chairman of the Helsinki Commission in early 1995, Mr. Speaker, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and its European counterparts were seized by a genocidal conflict of aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Many here in the Congress were already deeply involved in bipartisan efforts to end the conflict by urging a decisive, international response under U.S. leadership. I can still recall the sense of horror, outrage and shame when the Srebrenica massacre occurred and nothing was done to stop it and other atrocities committed against civilians. Slobodan Milosevic, meanwhile, was comfortably entrenched as Serbia’s leader, with Kosovo under his repressive thumb. The situation was truly bleak.
Today, relative calm prevails throughout the Balkans region, though simmering tensions and other serious problems could lead to renewed crisis and conflict, if left unchecked. Overcoming the legacy of the past and restoring dignity and ensuring justice for the victims will require sustained engagement and vigilance. Integrating the countries of the region into European institutions can advance this process.
Slovenia has become a full-fledged member of both NATO and the European Union. Croatia is well on its way to similar membership, and Macedonia and Albania are making steady progress in the right direction. In a welcome development, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the epicenter of bloody carnage and mass displacement in the mid-1990s, was invited last week to participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program, along with Serbia and the newly independent state of Montenegro.
As a longstanding member and leader of the Helsinki Commission, I want to highlight some of the numerous initiatives we have undertaken in an attempt to draw attention to developments in the Balkans and to influence related policy. Since 1995, we have convened more than 20 hearings on specific aspects of the region as well as related briefings, legislation, letters, statements and meetings. These efforts have been undertaken with an uncommon degree of bipartisanship. In this regard, I particularly want to thank the Commission’s outgoing Ranking Member, Mr. Cardin of Maryland, for helping to make this a reality.
Among the Commission’s most noteworthy accomplishments, I would include garnering the strong support that contributed to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and pressing countries to cooperate in bringing those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide to justice. I would include the change in U.S. policy from relying on Milosevic to implement the Dayton Agreement to supporting democracy in Serbia as the long-term and genuine partner in building regional peace and stability.
We have maintained a significant focus on elections, encouraging all the countries in the region to strive to meet international standards for free and fair elections as well as referenda. There has been tremendous progress in this regard.
The Commission’s support for the OSCE, I believe, has helped the organization’s field activities in southeastern Europe to be more successful in promoting respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all the people, regardless of ethnicity. Finally, on the more controversial policy of NATO’s action against Serbia in 1999, the Commission served as a forum to air differing views on the policy response while finding common ground in addressing the humanitarian crises, documenting human rights abuses and holding human rights violators to account.
Mr. Speaker, while welcoming this progress in southeastern Europe, I would caution against complacency as the region faces significant challenges. Maintaining positive momentum will require much from actors in the region as well as the international community, including the United States.
First and foremost is the situation in Kosovo. The pending decisions that will be made on Kosovo’s status give rise to growing expectation as well as apprehension and concern. Despite the many debates on larger issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination, these decisions should and will ultimately be judged by whether or not they lead to improved respect for human rights, especially the rights of those people belonging to the Serb, Roma and other minority communities in Kosovo. The members of the minority communities deserve to be treated as people, not as pawns in a fight over territory and power. They should be allowed to integrate rather than remain isolated, and they should not be discouraged from integration when opportunities arise. I remain deeply concerned that these issues are not being given the attention they deserve. Whatever Kosovo becomes, OSCE and other international human rights standards must apply.
Similarly, there is a need to ensure that justice is vigorously pursued for the victims of horrendous human rights violations. Conditionality on assistance to Serbia, as well as on that country’s integration, must remain firmly in place until Belgrade cooperates fully in locating at-large indicted war criminals and facilitating their transfer to the ICTY in The Hague. It is an outrage that Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic remain at large. After refusing to take meaningful action on these cases, Serbia cannot be let off the hook now, but should be pressed to comply with its international obligations.
A related issue is that of missing persons. Ten years after Dayton, additional mass graves continued to be uncovered, and the identification of the remains of relatives and loved ones is important for the survivors of past atrocities and their societies. The Commission recently held a briefing on identifying remains found in mass graves in Bosnia, and I hope that support for determining the fate of missing persons can be further strengthened.
While some progress has been made in combating trafficking in persons in the region, all countries there need to intensify their efforts to end this modern-day form of slavery. Political will and adequate resources will be required, including through enhanced efforts by law enforcement and more vigorous prosecution of traffickers while providing protection for their victims.
Religious freedoms also remain a cause for concern. Various laws in the region allegedly providing for religious freedom do more to restrict this fundamental right by establishing thresholds for registration, by discriminating against small or new religious groups through tiers of recognition with associated privileges for traditional faiths, and by precluding the sharing of creeds or limiting free speech. These restrictions are particularly burdensome to smaller religious groups and can lead to stigmatization, harassment, and discrimination against their members. For instance, Kosovo’s new religion law singles out certain communities for special status while failing to address how other religious groups can obtain juridical personality as a religious organization, thereby creating a significant legal void from the start. I urge Kosovo authorities to follow the progressive Albanian system and create a neutral registration system of general applicability. Macedonia is considering a draft law now, and I hope authorities will fully adopt the recommendations of the OSCE Panel of Experts on Religious Freedom, as certain provisions of the draft regarding the granting of legal personality need additional refinement. I similarly call on Serbian officials to amend their current law and ensure all groups seeking registration receive legal status. Meanwhile, there is a need to step up efforts to respect the sanctity and ensure the safety of places of worship that have in the past been the targets of ethnically-based violence in Kosovo, Bosnia, Serbia and elsewhere.
Mr. Speaker, concerted efforts by courageous leaders in the Balkans and elsewhere have helped move the region from the edge of the abyss to the threshold for a brighter and more prosperous future. I congratulate the countries of southeastern Europe on the progress achieved thus far and encourage them to make further progress to ensure that all of the people of the region benefit.