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

War Crimes Bill Less Than It Seems

Serbia is pushing through war crimes legislation that won’t net the big fish because too many of them remain in power.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Serbia’s parliament is set to pass legislation allowing local courts to prosecute war crimes for the first time, but critics say it does not go far enough to make the country face up to its past.

“We must finally go through this catharsis and admit that some of our compatriots and citizens committed crimes in our name and that people must answer for those crimes,” justice minister Vladan Batic told parliament when he tabled the bill on June 24.

The legislation is wide-ranging in scope, applying to war crimes committed anywhere in the former Yugoslavia.

But critics say it is half-hearted and at least partly cosmetic.

For a start, it will not deal with all those involved in crimes. The draft legislation provides for prosecutions only of the footsoldiers – those who actually carried out atrocities – and does not address the responsibility of anyone higher up the command chain.

James Lyon, the International Crisis Group’s representative in Serbia, told IWPR that the issue of those who gave the orders for war crimes may never be raised because many of them are still in power.

He sees the bill as “a way for the government to appear to be doing something, at the lowest possible cost”.

As Batic pointed out, the bill envisages a special prosecutor’s office and detention units for war crimes suspects.

It does not, however, provide for special police units to arrest those suspects. This is a major flaw, says Natasa Kandic, the director of Belgrade’s Humanitarian Law Centre. “We still have the old links between the prosecution and the police, who were themselves involved in the war and who don’t supply the evidence needed,” she told IWPR.

Kandic does not believe the new legislation will push war crimes any higher up the official agenda in Serbia. The government has failed to grasp just how serious the war crimes legacy is, and it is too politically insecure to take a tough stand, she said.

The justice minister’s speech indicated only a grudging acceptance of the war crimes process. He was quick to focus parliament’s attention on what he sees as the failings of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

He accused the court of administering “selective justice”, citing as an example its failure to indict current Albanian leaders in Kosovo for crimes they are alleged to have committed in the 1999 conflict. In particular, he described wartime commanders Hashim Thaci, Agim Ceku and Ramush Haradinaj – who now lead the Democratic Party of Kosovo, the Kosovo Protection Corps, and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, respectively – as “the greatest criminals since the Second World War”.

“Cooperation with the Hague tribunal is a necessary evil which has been forced on us. Nobody wanted it.… But we can’t defy the United States,” said Batic, adding that he hoped the beginning of local prosecutions would mean the end of indictments by The Hague.

Batic said he did not expect a large number of prosecutions. He did cite two high-profile cases which will be prosecuted – the 1991 execution of about 250 Croat prisoners in Vukovar, and the case of hundreds of Albanians whose bodies were found buried in the Belgrade suburb of Batajnica in June 2001.

Drinka Gojkovic, director of the Documentation Centre–Wars 91-99, thinks that Batic’s rhetoric reflects a cynical and patronising attitude on the part of Belgrade officials. Ordinary Serbs are not unwilling to take a moral stand on their country’s part in past crimes, but they are confused when the government sends contradictory messages, she said.

Belgrade’s stance on the question of local war crimes trials has undergone a number of shifts. Back in January 2001, the then Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic won support for local prosecutions from US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. The government’s apparent readiness to cooperate with The Hague came to an abrupt halt once President Slobodan Milosevic was extradited to the Hague in the summer of 2001. Analysts then wrote off the earlier positive statements as no more than propaganda designed to discredit Milosevic.

There was near-silence on the issue until Djindjic was assassinated in March this year and the government found that some of its major suspects were people either directly implicated in war crimes, or involved in Serbia’s anti-Hague lobby. At that point it could no longer sidestep the issue, and began cultivating a better relationship with the tribunal. At the same time it made it clear it planned to set up a war crimes court.

The picture now emerging is one of a government that is still unwilling or unable to tackle the war crimes issue head on, even if it feels it has to pay lip service to the principle. Until it feels more secure, and is more confident that it has the moral support of the electorate, it is unlikely that Serbia’s leadership can come up with a robust system for trying war crimes.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor in Belgrade.