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Serbia: Army Considered for Liberia Mission

Should the army of Serbia-Montenegro be allowed to take part in peacekeeping operations so soon after the Balkan wars?
By IWPR staff

Human rights campaigners, peace activists and war crimes prosecution officials have expressed mixed feelings over the possible deployment of units of the army of Serbia-Montenegro in a UN peacekeeping mission in Liberia, just four years after the Kosovo war.

Some believe the move will bolster the military reform process in Serbia-Montenegro, while others fear it might be seen by Belgrade as exonerating its armed forces of blame in the Kosovo conflict and even jeopardising the Liberian mission.

The Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic told the Belgrade media last week that during his recent visit to the United States the newly appointed head of the UN peacekeeping mission to Liberia, Jacques Klein, had asked him how many troops Serbia-Montenegro could contribute to the operation.

IWPR has since learned that it is very possible that the country will participate in Liberia, even though the UN has some concerns about the move.

Belgrade has made it clear that it is keen to participate in such international military assignments, viewing them as a way of speeding up its integration into Euro-Atlantic organisations, especially NATO’s partnership for peace programme.

“Our return to peacekeeping operations anywhere in the world would primarily mean another political victory,” said Zivkovic at a Belgrade press conference last week.

The likelihood of Belgrade’s engagement in UN missions has been bolstered by Washington’s backing. “It shows a responsible attitude on the part of the Serbian leadership that they want to be involved in stabilisation and peacekeeping operations around the world. We will be working with our Serbian friends in the months ahead,” US Secretary of State Colin Powell told a press conference in Washington last week.

Western officials are generally pleased with the reforms undertaken by the Serbia-Montenegro army, especially since the appointment of Boris Tadic as defence minister of the state union earlier this year - although they continue to have reservations about welcoming them back into the international military fold just yet.

NATO insists that Belgrade arrest the Hague fugitive Ratko Mladic and extradite him to the tribunal, or prove that he’s no longer in the country, before it’s prepared to upgrade ties.

And it’s understood that the UN has some qualms about the inclusion in a Liberian peacekeeping mission of Serbia-Montenegro forces because of their record in the Balkan wars. Security Council committee claims this year that a Serbian arms manufacturer sold weapons to Liberia in 2002 - an allegation that Belgrade has denied - are also likely to have raised alarms.

But since the UN is believed to be struggling to get western countries to contribute troops to the West African operation, it may have to agree to Belgrade’s participation despite its concerns

Human rights campaigners, peace activists and war crimes prosecution officials seem to have equally mixed views about the possible deployment.

Aaron Rhodes, the executive director of the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, said, “ I would say that if the forces of Serbia and Montenegro can fulfil their international responsibility this would have a good effect - helping to integrate these forces into international peacekeeping would be a step towards normalisation.

The view is shared by Jean-Daniel Ruch, diplomatic adviser to the Hague tribunal prosecutor, “ As someone who has experience in the region, it’s certainly a good thing to expose the army to the outside world. This will have an impact on the army. It’s about changing its mentality. By leaving it isolated it develops a psychology of its own – closed, anxious and afraid. By integrating it slowly we are encouraging reform and change in society.”

Rhodes adds that while involvement of the Serbia-Montenegro army in peacekeeping operations has merits, he can also “see dangers that it could be considered premature - a step to whitewashing the past of those forces and papering it over with some virtuous service.”

Hugh Poulton, Amnesty International’s researcher for Serbia-Montenegro, said there were still real concerns over the country’s armed forces, “Despite the increase in democratic control over the army and removal of a handful of top figures, those responsible for war crimes during the Yugoslav wars, and particularly Kosovo, have for the most part not been brought to justice.”

Daniel Serwer, Balkans specialist at the United States Institute of Peace, said, “I regard Tadic as a serious reformer. I have no problems with his sincerity. The real question is when in the reform process are you happy to see Belgrade sending troops to international peace keeping operations?

“Tadic has only been in office since March. This is not enough time to complete the first phase of the reforms of the army. And given the [recent] history they should focus right now on what they need to do to get into the partnership for peace programme. I certainly would be more comfortable for them to look to implement planned reforms first.”

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, director of the peace and security programme at Justice Africa, says units of the Serbia-Montenegro army deployed in Liberia "may turn out to be good or bad, but why risk sending troops from a country whose recent history includes war crimes to West Africa? To see whether it’s reformed, reforming or still the same? We don’t know how much of this army is clean. It’s killed its own citizens. What will it do if it comes across strangers? It’s a derogation of the UN’s responsibility.”

Should units of the Serbia-Montenegro army be sent to Liberia, there’s a consensus that Belgrade thoroughly vet those it dispatches to make sure they have no responsibility for, or connection with, war crimes.

The tribunal has already begun to devolve responsibility for investigating and prosecuting low-ranking officers and soldiers to Belgrade’s military court. All but two of the 18 cases it has tried have resulted in murder convictions – four of them for crimes committed in Kosovo.

The two elite units of the Serbia-Montenegro army likely to be sent on peace keeping missions are the 72nd special forces brigade, the Serbian equivalent of the British SAS, and the 63rd parachute brigade. Both served in Kosovo and IWPR inquiries indicate that none of their members have been investigated for war crimes during the conflict.

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