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Comment: Milosevic Holds Forth on Human Rights

Judge dismisses as irrelevant Milosevic lecture on his understanding of human rights.
By Mirko Klarin

Slobodan Milosevic last week gave a leading expert on human rights a lecture on the subject, angering Judge Richard May who described it as a waste of the court's time.


The episode occurred on Wednesday, December 11, on the second day of testimony of Jerri Laber, the founder and first director of the human rights group, Helsinki Watch, HW.


Laber testified about investigations by her organisation in former Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992, during the break-up of the country.


During her testimony, the prosecution introduced several HW reports from this period detailing human rights violations in Kosovo, Croatia and Serbia.


Her lengthy letter to Milosevic, the then president of Serbia, dated January 21, 1992, was introduced as evidence.


The letter details numerous cases of severe violations of human rights - that is, war crimes - which, according to HW findings, were committed in Croatia in the second half of 1991 by the Yugoslav army, JNA, and/or paramilitary forces from Serbia.


In the letter, Milosevic and General Blagoje Adzic (then acting federal minister of defense and the JNA chief of staff) were called upon to investigate these crimes, identify and punish those responsible and prevent violations of the human rights in the future.


At that time, Milosevic did not reply to the letter. But when it was presented in court 11 years later, he reacted in a similar, if not identical, way to how Brezhnev, Ceaucescu, Husak, Yaruzelski and other communist leaders used to respond to western criticism of their human rights record.


To accusations of persecution and imprisonment of dissidents, suppression of the free press and freedom of expression, prohibition of political organisations and other limitations of civil and political rights, they told their detractors that in their system collective rights - to, for example, work, education and health care - took precedence.


Last week, Milosevic delivered a similar lecture to Laber, one of the world's foremost experts in human rights.


Faced with HW reports of serious violations of basic human rights, Milosevic set out the collective rights to which he attached importance.


It did not, of course, include a number of those Brezhnev and Ceaucescu referred to in their time - such as employment, education and health care - because these rights were severely limited in Serbia during the 13 years of his rule.


Milosevic said the key human rights issues were the right of people to self-determination and the inviolability of state borders.


These, Milosevic triumphantly noted, were proclaimed in both the UN and Helsinki Charters, and therefore Laber's organisation, which claims to be a watchdog of the latter, should be monitoring them.


According to Milosevic, it was exactly the violation of these rights by Croatian "illegal acts of violent secession that caused the war in which other human rights were violated".


Laber vainly attempted to explain that her organisation was established in order to protect individual human rights, and not the right of people to self-determination and inviolability of state borders, which are, essentially, political and constitutional issues.


May found it equally hard to persuade the accused to stop trying to engage the witness in "irrelevant constitutional dispute" and concentrate on the substance of her testimony.


Milosevic, though, was undeterred and continued with his lecture, prompting the judge to dismiss his cross-examination as "a waste" of the court's time. But after a brief consultation with fellow judges Patrick Robinson and O-gon Kwon, who obviously did not agree, he allowed Milosevic to continue.


In January 1992, Laber tried to deliver her letter and a Helsinki Watch report to Milosevic and Adzic in person, but both men refused to see her.


After several days of waiting in Belgrade, without success, she finally handed the letter to representatives of the JNA chief-of-staff and two opposition politicians (Vojislav Kostunica and Dragoljub Micunovic). They received her at the ministry of foreign affairs, on the basis of which she concluded that they were representatives of the ministry.


Milosevic tried to present this assumption as a "cardinal mistake", which "does not fit the image of the highest standards" observed by HW and which questions everything that is contained in the reports on human rights violations.


May described this as an "absolutely absurd attempt of the accused to inflate this issue out of all proportion".


In any case, upon receiving the letter and Helsinki Watch report, both representatives of JNA chief-of-staff and the opposition politicians instantly rejected all the claims contained in the documents and blamed Croatia for human rights violations.


Although they are obviously irrelevant for this particular case, the court also heard parts of a letter from HW to the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.


Like the correspondence with Milosevic, it contained reports of human rights violations, this time against Serbs in Croatia, and called for investigations into these cases and for the offenders to be brought to justice.


Unlike Milosevic, Tudjman received the HW delegation (which, without its president, was on lower level than the one that came to Belgrade) and promised to examine the matter.


Laber said that after this "there were certain - though not sufficient efforts by the Croatian authorities to discover and punish the offenders, especially those responsible for the crimes committed in Karlovac and Zadar".


Milosevic now has good reasons to regret, not only his refusal to meet Laber in January 1992 but also the fact that several weeks later he allowed his chief of cabinet to reply to the HW president in writing.


In his short letter dated February 11, 1992, Goran Milinovic said Serbia was not responsible for the human rights described in Laber's letter as "all the locations in which the crimes took place were situated in the territory of the Republic of Croatia".


Secondly, and more importantly, Milinovic said that the president of Serbia had ordered an investigation into the allegations contained in the HW report and punishment of Serbian citizens responsible for the crimes, regardless of where they were committed.


This short letter confirms at least three things.


That Milosevic received the HW report about the violations of human rights in Croatia; that he accepted Serbia should be held responsible for the crimes committed by its citizens anywhere in the territory of former Yugoslavia; and that he was aware of the fact that it was his duty to investigate the claims specified in the report - which he failed to do.


To the question of whether she knew of any steps taken by Milosevic in connection with the HW report, Laber replied, "We didn't see any significant response to try to prevent abuses or punish them".


During his cross-examination of Laber, Milosevic sought to discredit the report.


He said it was based on statements of anonymous witnesses and victims, taken by the investigators who "had no experience or knowledge which are necessary to take statements to be used in court procedures".


The witness replied that the purpose of her organisation's investigations was not to provide evidence that could be used in any court, and especially not the tribunal, which was not in existence at that time.


The purpose, she patiently explained, was to establish the facts about the violations of human rights, so that governments in question could be warned about what was going on and moved to act: to launch investigations, discover and punish the offenders and prevent future violations.


Defending the integrity of her investigators, Laber insisted that all of them were trained and that she stood by them.


She added that all leaders, including Milosevic, "should accept responsibility for their associates work" - remarks that prompted the usually sombre looking prosecutor Geoffrey Nice to smile and then appear to fight the urge to laugh aloud.


Milosevic, though, pressed on, but when he asked the witness about details of villages in which certain crimes took place she said these questions were more than ten years too late.


"In 1992..this could have been a relevant discussion," the witness said. "At this point I'm here not to discuss or defend any details of this report... but to bring to your attention the fact that I've tried to bring this to your attention as a director of my organisation at the time when this was happening and that we did not get an adequate response."


Among the violations of human rights, Laber had unsuccessfully tried to bring to the attention of the then president of Serbia was the shelling of Dubrovnik.


Replacing Laber at the witness stand, Petar Poljanic, the wartime mayor of Dubrovnik, last week started his testimony about what happened in the city and its surroundings in the period from October 1 to December 31, 1991, and how the city declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site became the "World's Largest Prison". His testimony will be continued next week.


Mirko Klarin is a senior IWPR editor in The Hague and the editor-in-chief of the SENSE news agency.


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