Feature 09 May 16

Serbia Promises EU to Intensify War Prosecutions

To boost its EU membership bid, Serbia has promised to prosecute all possible remaining war crimes suspects and reform its war crimes institutions, but rejected Croatian demands to change its legislation.

Marija Ristic BIRN Belgrade
Photo: Flickr/European Parliament.

Serbia has pledged in a new action plan to reform its justice sector during its EU membership talks, vowing to do more to deal with unprosecuted war crimes and to step up the fight against organised crime.

The Serbian government’s recently published, 415-page action plan for Chapter 23 of the EU legislation that Serbia needs to adopt to gain membership - the chapter focusing on the rule of law - lays out the promises that Belgrade has made to Brussels on judicial reform.

“The Republic of Serbia is fully committed to the process of European integration and aware that this process requires substantial and fundamental changes in the judiciary, the anti-corruption system and the protection of fundamental rights, both at the normative and the implementation level,” the government action plan says.

In the document, which the government adopted on April 27 and the justice ministry published on Friday, Serbia for the first time detailed its plan to adjust to EU standards.

In the section dedicated to war crimes, it says it will “ensure that all allegations [about war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia during 1990s] are properly investigated and subsequently prosecuted and tried”.

The plan lists what actions the authorities aim to take during the accession talks, but doesn’t pledge to change the Law on the Organisation and Jurisdiction of Government Authorities in War Crimes Proceedings, which Croatia says is a key issue that Serbia needs to address before opening its Chapter 23 talks with Brussels.

Zagreb wants Belgrade to change the law because it gives Serbian courts the jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed anywhere in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s wars, which it fears could be used to target Croats.

As a result, the Croatian government has on several recent occasions blocked Serbia from opening talks on Chapter 23.

This obstruction has caused anger in Belgrade. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic insisted on Sunday that the government has “fulfilled all the conditions [for the opening of the Chapter 23 talks]” and called on Croatia to drop its objections.

Serbia’s justice ministry told BIRN that many countries within the EU have universal jurisdiction over war crimes, so Brussels cannot demand that Belgrade change its law “just for political reasons”.

The EU told the Croatian government last month saying that Zagreb should resolve its differences with Belgrade over the war crimes legislation through bilateral talks rather than blocking Serbian negotiations.

In the section of its action plan that deals with war crimes, Serbia pledges to “ensure that all allegations are properly investigated and subsequently prosecuted and tried”.

It aims to do this by “gradually strengthening the capacities of War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office”.

The office currently has eight prosecutors and limited recourses; prosecutors have often complained of a lack of support and about political pressure on their work.

In its efforts to meet EU standards, Serbia adopted its first ever war crimes strategy in February this year.

The new action plan also envisages the adoption of a strategy for the investigation and prosecution of war crimes in Serbia.

The new strategy, which will be developed over the course of this year, aims to set criteria to determine which cases should be launched first, but will also finally specify ways to prosecute high officials alleged for war crimes.

A total of 435 people have been prosecuted for war crimes so far in Serbia, but none of those convicted have been army or police generals or state officials.

The government document also says that Serbia wants complete access to the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) relating to war crimes in the whole of the former Yugoslavia, including documents not only from Serbia but also from Bosnia and Croatia.

So far, according to Serbian government, access was only allowed to some of the UN tribunal’s documents and testimonies.

“Specifically, redacted witness statements given to investigators of the ICTY have been transferred, but the disclosure of 22 witnesses’ identities to the Serbian War Crime Prosecutor’s Office is lacking. Currently, the War Crime Prosecutor’s Office receives a limited number of statements on a case-by-case basis but is still lacking ones that could identify perpetrators,” the action plan says.

“Statements by those witnesses would open several war crime cases against several members of paramilitary formations and high officials and the solution of this problem will be the main incentive for cases against high-level perpetrators,” it adds.

During the EU accession period, the action plan also envisages the preparation of a report by the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office saying what has been done about all criminal charges since 2005 and determining “whether all allegations of war crimes have been investigated appropriately”.

The government further pledges to reform its police units dealing with war crimes, the War Crimes Investigation Unit and the War Crimes Witness Protection Unit.

Both have been criticised by both international and local human rights organisations because some of their members used to be part of units that allegedly were involved in war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

The action plan says that it will examine “whether the process of hiring staff should be improved (whether possible previous participation of the candidates in armed conflict in former Yugoslavia should be an obstacle in the selection process)”.

It promises to give both units more resources and “step up the security of witnesses and informants and improve witness and informant support services”.

In the case of perceived delays, setbacks or other problems in the implementation of the action plan, in addition to its regular reports, the EU Council can issue a warning which will also go to the head of the accession negotiations team.

The European Commission has expressed satisfaction with the action plan and the efforts of the Serbian government to comply to with EU standards.

“We are pleased with the progress made by Serbia in this area so far and we are looking for ways to open Chapters 23 and 24 in the near future,” a European Commission spokesperson told BIRN on condition of anonymity.

Despite Croatia’s objections, Serbia still hopes to open the two chapters next month.

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