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

Witness Defends Herceg-Bosna

Former head of justice department said wartime entity was formed to protect Bosnian Croats’ rights.
By Simon Jennings

A defence witness testifying at the Hague trial of six former Croatian Defence Council, HVO, officials denied that the leadership of Herceg-Bosna sought a territory governed by Croats.

Zoran Buntic, the former head of Herceg-Bosna’s justice and general administration department, told judges this week that the statelet’s leadership wanted Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks to live together in one country.

Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic are all charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise from November 1991 to April 1994 to ethnically cleanse non-Croats from certain areas of Bosnia.

According to the indictment, the Herceg-Bosna entity was created in November 1991 on the territory of what was then the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The HVO was then established in May 1992 as the statelet’s “executive, administrative and defence body”.

The argument already advanced by Prlic’s defence – that Herceg-Bosna was not in fact created as a separate state within Bosnia – continued to be put to judges by lawyers.

Buntic agreed with a statement from Petkovic’s defence counsel, Vesna Alaburic, that “the fact that one territorial unit has a kind of legislative, kind of executive and a kind of judicial authority is no proof that that territorial unit is a state”.

“I absolutely agree, because these are not the constitutive elements of a state,” said Buntic.

Earlier in his testimony, Buntic contended that Herceg-Bosna was created to counter Serb attacks.

However, in its cross-examination of the witness, the prosecution sought to advance its theory that Herceg-Bosna was in fact conceived by its leaders as a separate Croatian state.

In September 1991, the HDZ established so-called “crisis staffs” for three regional communities, including Travnik and Hercegovina. On November 12 – just a few days before Herceg Bosna declared its existence – a joint meeting of the crisis staffs of Hercegovina and Travnik regional communities, chaired by former Herceg-Bosna president Mate Boban and HVO military commander Dario Kordic, was held.

Prosecutor Douglas Stringer presented Buntic with a list of conclusions recorded from the meeting.

“The Croatian people in this region and all of Bosnia [and] Hercegovina still support the unanimously accepted orientation and conclusions adopted in agreements with [Croatian] President Dr Franjo Tudjman,” read Stringer.

“These two regional communities have unanimously decided that the Croatian people in Bosnia Hercegovina must finally embrace a determined and active policy which will realise our eternal dream of a common Croatian state.”

But the witness denied knowledge of this document.

When asked if Boban shared this information with him at a later stage – such as when he took office as head of the justice and general administration department – Buntic said he had not.

To show that the entity was governed solely by Croats, with no role for parties representing other ethnic groups, Stringer put it to the witness that between November 1991 and 1993, Herceg-Bosna had a single-party presidency, made up exclusively of members of the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ.

But the witness said some members of the leadership, such as a representative from Vares municipality, did not belong to the HDZ.

Stringer also pointed to parts of the decision – taken at a meeting at which the witness was present – on the establishment of Herceg-Bosna.

He contended that certain extracts conveyed the witness’s apparent view at the time that “a unitary state model and a multi-ethnic society [was] unacceptable”.

“What we are seeing here is a rejection of the fundamental way in which the state of Bosnia and Hercegovina was organised as of July 1992 [shortly after the country declared independence]. That model was not acceptable to you and the others who wrote and adopted this amended decision,” said Stringer, to the agreement of the witness.

Stringer contended that the leadership of Herceg-Bosna wanted all three ethnic groups “to have their own space” and that it sought a territory “that was governed by Croatian people”.

Buntic disagreed.

“We advocated a Bosnia Hercegovina as a compound state of three constituent peoples which would have mechanisms aimed at protecting the rights of all three constituent peoples,” he told the court.

The witness declined to talk further about what was intended, focusing rather on the eventual peace plans that were accepted by the Croatian authorities.

“As you are well aware, the Croatian negotiating delegation accepted all three models offered for the resolution of the Bosnia Hercegovina crisis offered by the international community,” he said.

Stringer pressed the witness to tell the court which particular solution was envisaged by the leadership of Herceg-Bosna at that time.

“With all due respect, I enjoy talking about facts and deeds rather than thoughts or wishes of individuals,” replied Buntic.

Stringer’s persistence on this point was met with objections from Prlic’s defence lawyer, Michael Karnavas, who said the witness “had never indicated anything about separation”, and had only talked about the three nations of Bosnia living together.

The prosecutor then showed the witness a map with the border of Herceg-Bosna outlined, asking him about the ethnic diversity of the region.

“There’s no need to trick me by showing me these borders. It’s nothing but a trick,” replied Buntic.

“The Croatian community of Herceg-Bosna never published or showed a map that would show the borders of the Croatian community... The Croatian community of Herceg-Bosna did not have borders.”

The witness also said the defendants had never interfered with the Bosnian judicial process.

“If there was something unlawful or incriminating in the work of the courts or the prosecutor’s office…I assume upon myself all the responsibility and I invite the prosecutor of this tribunal to issue an indictment against me,” Buntic told judges.

“Where it comes to the work of the courts, I can be the sole responsible individual.”

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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