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US Likely to Set Ultimatum Over Mladic

Congress may block aid to Serbia unless top war crimes suspect is delivered to Hague court.
By Chris Stephen

The United States Senate is considering passing a law that would cut aid to Serbia unless former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic is handed over to the Hague war crimes court.


In a radical move, the US Senate is expected to demand that aid payments are cut from March 1, 2004 if Mladic is not arrested.


The demand comes in the form of an amendment to a Foreign Operations bill which the Senate first put forward in July, and which authorises US aid spending abroad for 2004.


The amended law could be catastrophic for Serbia, as other donors such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank could follow the American lead and freeze their own funding.


The amendment's architect is Senator Patrick Leahy, the most senior Democrat on the Senate's powerful appropriations committee.


He told IWPR that America's patience with Belgrade's refusal to hand over Mladic is now exhausted.


"It is inexcusable that Ratko Mladic, who perhaps more than anyone besides Slobodan Milosevic is responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent people, has not been apprehended," he said. "Under my amendment, US aid to Serbia next year would be withheld until the Serbian authorities turn him over to the Hague prosecutor."


Mladic is specifically named in a list of conditions that need to be met to allow aid to continue.


The conditions come in an innocuous-sounding piece of Senate legislation, bill number S.1426.


The bill authorises aid payments beyond March 1 next year only if Serbia is "cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including access for investigators, the provision of documents, and the surrender and transfer of indictees, including Ratko Mladic, or assistance in their apprehension".


The original draft of the bill did not contain Mladic's name. His inclusion comes amid frustration from senators that he remains free.


To become law, the amended bill must be first voted on by the Senate. Then the other chamber, the House of Representatives, must agree. This process is not expected to finish before the end of November.


The Senate is almost certain to pass the bill, because it enjoys strong support from both Democrats and Republicans.


Observers say it is likely to get support from the House of Representatives, too. "From what I understand the House is even more keen than the Senate on the war crimes issue, " said Dr James Lyon of the International Crisis Group, a policy think-tank.


The move comes amid a hardening of American attitudes towards Belgrade, after three years of fruitless negotiations on handing over Mladic and other suspects. In 2002, and again this year, Congress agreed to give Belgrade more time to make arrests.


Now, it seems, Washington has run out of patience. On October 10, Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a press conference together with Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, in which he said, "We are particularly anxious to get the two big fish - Mladic and Karadzic - who have been able to escape apprehension so far."


The move comes as Del Ponte steps up the pressure on both Serbia and Croatia to hand over indictees.


The aid restrictions envisaged in the bill will apply to Serbia itself, but not to Kosovo or Montenegro. A US-funded municipal democracy programme in Serbia will also be exempt.


News of the bill was welcomed by international observers. "Once again we have to rely on the Americans to get serious and take focused action," said London-based defence consultant Duncan Bullivant, a former official with the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia. "It's going to show everyone that the war crimes process is serious."


The question is whether Belgrade will now act. Elections are coming and the government is worried about antagonising nationalists if it arrests Mladic.


The amount of money Serbia receives from America is not huge - about one hundred million dollars a year - but the aid is important as a signal to other financial institutions. After the Dayton accords ended the Bosnian war, the US government continued to deny funding to Serbia, and the World Bank and the IMF followed its lead. It is likely that they, and the European Union, would be reluctant to continue with aid if Washington decided to withhold payments.


Attention is now likely to focus on the other key wanted man, the former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.


The US law makes no mention of Karadzic, but it is likely that NATO will feel compelled to try to find him wherever he is hiding in Bosnia, in order to show that it is serious about war crimes.


"How on earth can the international community get hard on Serbia if it can't take Karadzic on its own patch?" said Bullivant. "If the people who are running Bosnia can't deliver Karadzic, who are we to demand the Serbs deliver their own people?"


Lyon believes some good may come out of the US ultimatum. He says there is a lot of money and assistance possible if Belgrade cooperates on war crimes.


"There are a lot of people out there waiting to help Serbia," he said. "But Serbia has to help itself."


Chris Stephen is IWPR's tribunal project manager in The Hague


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