Serbia still harbors war criminals

Serbia still harbors war criminals

logo_hillDuring the 1990’s, the United States led two separate NATO bombing campaigns to end Serbian war crimes in Kosovo and Bosnia. Current Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gave panache to the criminal politics in play then. His first official visit to Washington, D.C. next week should not sidestep his lack of action to resolve war crimes now.

“You kill one Serb and we will kill one hundred Muslims.”

This type of flamboyant rhetoric – made days after 8,000 men and boys were separated and slaughtered in Srbenica – catapulted Vucic’s political career. He was only 28 years old when he was named Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information during the ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo. He continued this extremist course for the next decade.

In 2008, Vucic professed an about-face. He broke with ultranationalist politicians and professed a rather single-minded goal of joining the European Union. He’s since led painful reforms to the economy and against corruption that have matched his new and more moderate rhetoric.

He’s also expressed genuine remorse for his advocacy of war crimes. He’s called Srbenica a “horrendous crime” that Serbs should be “ashamed” to be associated with. He has also supported efforts at regional reconciliation and truth through the RECOM initiative.

On war crimes accountability, however, Prime Minister Vucic’s actions betray his words. Victims and their families expect more.

For years, the Humanitarian Law Center, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the European Commission have all lamented that high-level suspects enjoy effective immunity in Serbia. Prime Minister Vucic is neither passive nor impotent in these regards. Two examples stand out.

When the Humanitarian Law Center accused the current Army Chief of Staff, Ljubisa Dikovic, of war crimes in Kosovo, Vucic lashed out before even reading the report, accusing the NGO of trying to “bring down” the army and country. Dikovic is accused of overseeing civilian massacres in Kosovo villages in April and May 1999, when he commanded the 37th Motorized Brigade of the Yugoslav Army.

The Dikovic case should be of concern for the United States because of its close cooperation and assistance to the Serbian military. Given the allegations, continued assistance likely violates the Leahy Law, which prohibits the United States from providing military assistance to foreign military and security units that violate human rights with impunity. The United States provides roughly $3 million dollar per year in direct assistance to the Serbian military.

Prime Minister Vucic also harbors the main suspect in the war-crimes murders of three American citizens. Ylli, Agron, and Mehmet Bytyqi were kidnapped, executed, and dumped into a mass grave by Serbian officials in July 1999. Evidence indicates that the crimes were ordered from the highest-levels of the Yugoslav government and passed on through Goran “Guri” Radosaljevic.

Radosavljevic currently sits on the Executive Board of Prime Minister Vucic’s Progressive Party. The two are often seen publicly celebrating Progressive Party milestones together.

Neither Dikovic nor Radosavljevic have been properly investigated by authorities. Their prominent positions give each a safe space to block investigations from taking seed. For example, leaked diplomatic cables show that Serbian prosecutors fear that Radosavljevic intimidates witnesses and interferes with the Bytyqi case.

On the other end, the Serbian government has done little to create a safe space for witnesses. Police and protection units are riddled with war veterans, who often threaten and intimidate the very witnesses that they are charged to defend and protect.

Vucic may be reformed, but he is not reformed enough. Having advocated for and defended war crimes for more than half of his public career, he has a special responsibility to cure their effects. As Prime Minister, he should not be giving safe harbor to individuals with clear connection with mass war crimes like Ljubisa Dikovic and Goran Radosavljevic. U.S. officials should not tiptoe around this issue.

Orlovic is the executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center and can be found at @SandraOrlovic. Madhiraju is a pro bono advisor to and can be found at @BytyqiBrothers.