ANALYSIS: Accountability Deferred

Serbia is beginning to discuss the recent past, but it clearly continues to avoid the question of war crimes responsibility.

ANALYSIS: Accountability Deferred

Serbia is beginning to discuss the recent past, but it clearly continues to avoid the question of war crimes responsibility.

At a recent conference in Belgrade devoted to war crimes accountability, a Yugoslav parliamentarian, sitting in the audience, asked to borrow my copy of the statute of the recently formed truth and reconciliation commission, as he had never seen it before.

The two-day conference last month, which was opened by President Vojislav Kostunica, provided the first opportunity to take a closer look at the work of the commission, and debate the broader question of Serbia's responsibility for the events of the past decade in the Balkans.

The Belgrade meeting, "In Search of Truth and Responsibility", organised by Radio-TV B92, was a positive and noble effort. But a closer look at the conference suggests political debate in Serbia still aims to blur rather than clarify the issue of responsibility for war crimes.

Indeed, the president himself left the conference as soon as he finished his speech, and avoided any discussion of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The meeting brought together a wide range of international and domestic experts, and provided an opportunity to grapple with the issue of whether Serbian society needs to confront its ugly past in order to move towards a democratic future.

Along with the president, speakers included Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic, as well as representatives of The Hague tribunal - registrar Hans Holthius and outreach programme FRY coordinator Matias Hellman.

Also attending were Alex Boraine, vice-chair of the South African truth and reconciliation commission, and Professor Vojin Dimitrijevic, a prominent human rights activist who recently resigned from the Yugoslav truth commission. The panel was chaired by Sonja Licht of the Fund for Open Society.

Although Kostunica did not address the aims of the commission directly, the consensus among participants was that it should ensure that no one could claim they did not know the truth about the country's recent history.

One of the positive recommendations of the conference, representing its only formal conclusion, as published on B-92's site, was "to initiate a wide public discussion " on responsibility for

" all violations of human and minority rights, war crimes and other criminal acts committed from 1991 to date".

Establishing facts is one thing. Interpreting their meaning is an entirely different matter.

For instance, while Bosniaks (Muslims) and international law see the atrocities in Srebrenica as a crime against humanity, an average Serb may interpret it as 'a legitimate part of the struggle against the mujahedin'.

These concerns were underlined by recent findings presented to conference participants by the Strategic Marketing agency. According to this research, most citizens in Serbia believe that the reasons for the collapse of the former Yugoslavia were Croatian nationalism and the interests of the United States and NATO.

They believe the war-time Croatian and Bosnian presidents, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic, were more to blame for the wars than Milosevic. Most Serbs believe that those wanted by The Hague tribunal - Gen. Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, Milosevic - are in fact the greatest defenders of Serbia's national interests. The commission should work on dismantling such images and convictions.

These findings highlighted a conceptual problem for the Yugoslav commission. Unlike the South African model, which was often referred to, in Serbia there is no agreement among the commission members or among the public as to who are the greatest victims of Milosevic's regime.

The prevailing view is that Milosevic sinned more against his own citizens than other nations, and the state apparatus is still unable to address the subject of war crimes.

Kostunica's decision to set up a truth commission has thus been highly controversial. Not only did he appoint the members himself, but he did so in the context of his well-known scorn for The Hague tribunal. The commission is also only Yugoslav in name: it has no Montenegrin nor minority members.

While some prefer to avoid the question out of ideological conviction, others, such as Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, see the issue in pragmatic terms. At the meeting, he stated that he does not believe in addressing unpleasant issues of the past while trying to deal with the process of transition, as this hampers the process of democratisation. He argued, in short, that establishing the new institutions and fighting against corruption are a far greater priority than facing up to the past.

In a rare exception, Foreign Minister Sviljanovic expressed support for sending war criminals to The Hague. He also argued that there is nothing in domestic law that would prevent the state from prosecuting those suspected of war crimes in its own courts.

Jelena Pejic of the International Committee for the Red Cross said that the commission's task should be to determine political rather than criminal responsibility, and leave the former to the courts. Indeed, the commission could focus on cases such as Hrtkovci in Vojvodina whose Croatian population was expelled by Seselj's paramilitaries, or the case of abducted citizens in Strpci.

The military courts have begun the prosecution of war-time crimes, but these cases have focused on the theft of civilian property and not violations of the Geneva Conventions.

In other words, it looks as if it is "worse to be a thief than a murderer", remarked human rights activist Dimitrijevic.

At the opening of the meeting, the president explained that his decision to form the commission was influenced, among other things, by the fact that "in this country there are people who openly manifested their humanity and their resistance in times that were inhumane".

But most of his appointees to the commission lack such moral integrity. Jakob Finci, chairman of the National Coordinating Committee for Establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, argued that no one who was associated with the previous government should be in the commission.

Some members of the commission are hardly known to the public, and amongst the more familiar names are nationalists from the former government. Svetozar Stojanovic, for example, was special advisor to the first president of the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Dobrica Cosic - a leading member of the Serbian nationalist elite which ensured Slobodan Milosevic's rapid climb to power.

During Stojanovic's his mandate, 19 Muslims from Yugoslav were abducted from a train by Serb paramilitary forces and executed. He never commented on this, even while he was working within the highest political circles.

On a more positive note, one of the final recommendations from the conference called for the publication of documents identifying those who made key decisions relating to previous conflicts

Radmila Nakarada, a researcher at the Institute for European Studies and a committee member who served as a panelist at the conference, argued that the commission's priority should be to determine the origins of the wars in the Balkans. But she did not once mentioned a single concrete atrocity, speaking only generally of destruction and killing.

It appears that the Yugoslav commission is more of an academic institution or think-tank, rather than a body that will allow the victims or the villains to testify about the violations of human rights.

In her own academic research, Nakarada has already made clear her view that much of the blame for the conflicts lies with the international community. Such an approach could distract from investigation into Serbia's own responsibility, and in any event divert the commission into a long period of academic and political debate.

Dimitrijevic himself pointed out that as such the commission could hardly carry out its work where it's most needed: outside of Serbia, where the victims are.

In order to start moving towards reconciliation, those from whom forgiveness is sought need to have the opportunity to know what and whom they are to forgive. Hence perhaps one the most positive finding of the conference was the need for "an international truth and reconciliation commission with the countries that emerged after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia".

Duska Anastasijevic works for the Belgrade weekly Vreme.

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