News 29 Jan 15

Report Raps Balkan States’ Human Rights Failings

Governments in the Western Balkans should step up their efforts to improve human rights protection to further their European integration, Human Rights Watch said.

Marija Ristic
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2015.

In its 656-page World Report 2015, which aims to document human rights concerns across the world, international campaign group Human Rights Watch said progress in this area remains slow in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia.

“It’s time the Western Balkans governments demonstrated they are serious about European Union values like equal treatment of minorities and accountability for serious crimes,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“That’s true for the EU member Croatia and aspiring members Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo,” she added.

In the chapter of the report dedicated to Kosovo, HRW noted that “despite progress in recent years, the justice system remains weak, with inadequate security for judges, court staff, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses.”

According to the report, “this results in few prosecutions for serious crimes, such as organised crime and corruption”.

HRW cited the case against former Kosovo Liberation Army commander turned politician Fatmir Limaj and nine co-defendants suspected of abusing prisoners at the Klecka detention centre in 1998-99.

“The case illustrates weakness in Kosovo’s witness protection programme: in the initial proceedings in 2012, testimony by the key witness, who was found dead in a park in Germany in December 2012 in what police called a suicide, was first ruled inadmissible, and on retrial, contradictory and unreliable,” report said.

The report also noted a fall in voluntary returns by internally displaced people to Kosovo. During the first 10 months of the year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered 440 voluntary returns, including people from outside Kosovo and internally displaced persons, compared to 465 during the same period in 2013.

In Serbia, HRW said, “war crimes prosecutions progressed slowly in 2014 due to a lack of political support, resources, and staff at the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor”.

Few high-ranking former military and civilian personnel have been prosecuted for war crimes. During the year, Serbia’s War Crimes Chamber reached judgments in just six cases, including two appeals.

HRW also criticised Serbia for not doing enough to support refugees and internally displaced people from the Balkan wars living in the country. According to UN refugee agency data, in July there were 44,251 refugees in Serbia, most of them from Croatia, and in September there were 204,049 internally displaced people, the majority from Kosovo.

In its section about Bosnia and Herzegovina, the report said that “implementation by the Bosnian government of the national war crimes strategy, adopted in 2008 to improve domestic war crimes prosecution, remains slow”.

“There continues to be insufficient capacity and funding for prosecutors, particularly at the district and cantonal level,” it said.

By November 2014, the war crimes chamber of the Bosnian state court had reached verdicts in 33 cases, increasing the total number of completed cases to 250 since the court became fully operational in 2005.

According to HRW, during the year, the Republika Srpska entity prime minister repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of the state court and prosecutor’s office, claiming they were unconstitutional and called for their abolition.

According to the UN refugee agency data, only 29 refugees and 66 internally displaced people returned to their areas of origin in the first half of 2014, a significant decrease compared to the same period in 2013. As of July 2014, there were still 84,500 registered IDPs in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In Croatia, HRW noted a European Court of Human Rights ruling in June last year which said that Zagreb failed to adequately investigate the death of a Serb civilian killed by the Croatian police during the 1991-95 war. Croatian courts have yet to address more than 200 war crimes cases.

“Serbs continued to face discrimination, with those stripped of tenancy rights during the war facing ongoing difficulties benefitting from the 2010 government programme that permits the purchase of property at below market rates,” the report said.

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