Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Serbia's Obligations

Serbia will not be accepted back into the international fold until it starts meeting its international obligations<br />
By Natasha Kandic
The entire world is now looking to us, coddling us, taking care not to irritate us, cunningly holding us back from considering difficult issues such as the extradition of war crimes suspects. Our president Vojislav Kostunica says, "I won't hand over Milosevic - our priority is democracy," and the world replies, "Never mind, there's no hurry."



Nationalist hardliners in the new government tell foreign diplomats that war crimes trials are a "sensitive issue, one that would divide the nation."



And the supposedly free, "liberated" media, fearing no censure or rebuke, continue writing about the glorious Yugoslav army and Serbian police who "prevented the occupation of the country."



Our priority is reintegration into the international community. The road leads through the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, from which we were excluded after failing to meet any of its obligations.



Our reintegration depends on the new government, on its readiness to comply with international obligations and standards. There can be no return to the international fold without co-operation with United Nations organisations, of which The Hague tribunal is one.



Montenegro has been co-operating with the tribunal since 1997, and has delivered Hague prosecutors documentation on the deportation of Muslim refugees from Bosnia in August 1992. Montenegro is not a safe haven for our "war heroes." The "veterans" and "dogs of war" currently living there will very soon start fleeing to the safe haven of Serbia.



Serbia will be a safe place not only for Slobodan Milosevic, Nikola Sainovic, Milan Milutinovic, Dragoljub Ojdanic and Vlajko Stojiljkovic - all of whom have been indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide - but also for thousands of others who carried out orders and committed atrocities against ethnic communities in neighbouring countries.



In a month or two, those who applaud and praise us now as victors will have no understanding for our "sensitivity" about the crimes committed by the Serbian police, Yugoslav army, paramilitary groups and common criminals.



In future, there must be greater scrutiny of the police - and all its various branches. And we should aim to forge a new professional army, in which there will be no room for the generals who formed paramilitary units such as the 7th Battalion in Montenegro.



We have been at war with all our neighbours. We left their countries devastated and increased the population of our own with thousands upon thousands of refugees, displaced and returning combatants. The last in this long series the Kosovo Serbs believe it is only a matter of time before they, the army and police return to the province and finish off the ethnic Albanians. Because of the evil in us, we cannot take even one small step to bring us closer to our neighbours.



Hence the outcry against non-governmental organisations calling for the release of ethnic Albanian political prisoners. The new government and the Kosovo Serbs say that their release must be made conditional on the release of "abducted Serbs" from Albanian and United Nations mission, UNMIK, prisons in Kosovo.



It would be in the best interests of the Kosovo Serbs for Kostunica and the new government to agree as soon as possible to meet with and to co-operate with the international administration in Kosovo. This too is a priority. For this is the only way to deal effectively with the issue of missing persons.



There are missing on both sides: about 2,500 Albanians who disappeared during the state of war, and about 1,000 Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosniaks and Roma who disappeared after the deployment of K-For troops in Kosovo. Their fate cannot be clarified unless a special process for missing persons is established.



The question of prisoners is easier. Some 850 Albanians are still in prisons in Serbia. About 1,250 Albanians were released by the Belgrade authorities from late June last year to October 1 this year. There is not a single reason why the remaining 850 should not be freed too.



They cannot be held as hostages. Among them are only two who are accused of murdering Serb civilians. Some 200 are serving terms for ordinary crimes, and 650 are political prisoners. There are some 60 Serbs in prisons in Kosovo accused of war crimes or ethnically-motivated murders - the majority have been awaiting trial for a year or longer.



Clarification of the fate of missing persons is a difficult process. It cannot be carried out unless the Serbian authorities and UNMIK co-operate with The Hague. It seems therefore that the road from both Kosovo and Serbia leads to the tribunal.



Natasha Kandic is the director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre.