On the occasion of 20 years since “Storm”: Victims have to become the responsibility of the society and institutions of Serbia and Croatia

On the occasion of 20 years since “Storm”:  Victims have to become the responsibility of the society and institutions of Serbia and Croatia

Fond_Logo_200_200The 20th anniversary of the Croatian military-police Operation “Storm” will be marked on Tuesday, 4 August 2015. During the operation, the Croatian military forces committed serious and widespread crimes against the Serbs living in the area of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina. Even after 20 years since the crimes were committed, justice for the victims of these crimes has not been achieved, and both Croatian and Serbian institutions are responsible. Both countries have a legal and moral obligation in the future to change the attitude towards the legacy of crimes committed during “Storm”, and to demonstrate that the caring for the victims and prosecution of the persons responsible for the crimes is the ground for future reconciliation.

According to the findings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), reports of the UN bodies and local NGOs, Operation “Storm” led to the displacement of over 200,000 Serbs. During this operation, members of the Croatian forces killed about 80 civilians who were escaping in a column of tractors and cars. In Sisak, the column was stoned while it was passing through the town. During the action and immediately afterwards, numerous cases of destruction and looting of Serbian property were recorded. The Serbs who remained in their villages, mostly elderly persons, were subjected to brutal treatment by Croatian soldiers and policemen. According to the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, around 400  were killed in their homes by the end of 1995. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, over 400 people are still missing.

In August 1995, members of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) of the Republic of Serbia, violating the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, arrested several thousand men – Croatian Serb refugees from collective centers and homes where they were accommodated. They were then taken by buses to a camp of the Serb Volunteer Guard (SVG) in Erdut. Members of the SVG abused and humiliated the refugees by accusing them of being traitors and then forced them to go to the front in Croatia and Bosnia. Several dozen men lost their lives after having been sent to the front lines. So far, Serbian courts have made more than a hundred judgments which established the responsibility of the Republic of Serbia for the inhuman treatment of Serb refugees from Krajina.

At the moment, there is still no precise list of the victims of Serbian nationality during and after  Operation “Storm”. In its report from 2001, the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, recorded 677 civilian casualties and about 20,000 destroyed facilities (burned, destroyed or damaged) in the area covered by the military action. According to  Veritas, in the period from 4 August 1995 till the end of 1998, 1,852 persons of Serbian nationality were murdered in Croatia, out of which 1,200 were civilians; while 922 people are still missing. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) and Documenta from Zagreb are collecting information on the victims killed and missing during the conflicts in Croatia.

According to the 1991 census, Croatian citizens of  Serbian nationality accounted for 13% of the total Croatian population; according to the 2001 census, the percentage was 4.5%. In the region of the former Yugoslavia, almost 50,000 persons are still registered as refugees from Croatia, most of whom now live in Serbia, a significant number of them  in collective refugee centers.

The survivors of the crimes, the families of the victims and missing persons, whether they live in Croatia or Serbia, have absolutely no institutional support (financial, health or psychosocial), because they are still not recognized as civilian victims of war. Namely, the laws that regulate the procedures of granting the status of civilian war victims in both countries prescribe criteria which deny the right of victims to acquire this status. Practically speaking, the survivors of serious crimes and the families of the killed and missing during “Storm” are invisible victims for Croatian and Serbian institutions. In Croatia, an official initiative of the Ministry of Veterans is currently in progress; the initiative aims to amend the Law on Protection of Military and Civilian War Invalids, which would grant the victims of “Storm” a formal recognition. The government of Serbia has not yet shown any willingness to amend the Law on Civilian Invalids of War, which would acknowledge the status of civilian victims of war to the victims of “Storm”.

In December 2014, the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Issues presented a Bill, according to which the victims of “Storm” would still be prevented from being recognized as civilian war victims, and therefore prevented from the possibility of obtaining any assistance from the state whatsoever. The HLC and the Centre for Advanced Legal Studies drew up a Model Law in 2015, which would correct the disadvantages of the existing law, as a result of which the Serbian victims from Croatia would also be recognised as victims in Serbia.

In 2008 the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for crimes committed against the Serbian population in “Storm” indicted Ante Gotovina, the commander of the Military District of the Croatian Army in Split and chief operational commander of “Storm” in the southern part of the Krajina region, Ivan Cermak, commander of the Knin Garrison and Mladen Markac, the commander of the Special Police of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) of the Republic of Croatia. They were accused of having participated in a joint criminal enterprise, also involving President Franjo Tudjman and a number of Croatian officials; the common purpose of the criminal enterprise was the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means. The indictment alleged that the participants in this criminal enterprise could have foreseen that the killings and other inhuman and cruel treatment were a possible consequence of the enterprise.

The first instance judgment in 2011 sentenced Gotovina and Markac to 24 and 18 years in prison respectively, for war crimes and crimes against humanity; whilst Cermak was released. The following year, the Appeals Chamber acquitted both Gotovina and Markac.

The decision of the ICTY Appeals Chamber has caused a lot of controversy among human rights organisations in Serbia and Croatia, human rights experts, lawyers in this country and abroad. The War Crimes Prosecutor (WCP) of the Republic of Serbia reacted to the verdict with an announcement that it was launching six cases for crimes committed against Serbs in Croatia and a request to the ICTY to receive prosecution documents related to Operation “Storm”. There are no publicly available data that the WCP has in fact launched the announced actions. Although the ICTY Appeals Chamber revoked the first instance judgment against Gotovina and others for the joint criminal enterprise, it did not question the facts that numerous crimes against Serbian civilians were committed during “Storm”. The same was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in a judgment delivered in 2015 on claims of the Republic of Croatia and Serbia for genocide:

In the present case, the Court notes that it is not disputed that a substantial part of the Serb population of the Krajina fled that region as a direct consequence of the military actions carried out by Croatian forces during Operation “Storm”, in particular the shelling of the four towns referred to above [Knin, Benkovac, Gračac i Obrovac]. It further notes that the transcript of the Brioni meeting […] makes it clear that the highest Croatian political and military authorities were well aware that Operation “Storm” would provoke a mass exodus of the Serb population; they even to some extent predicated their military planning on such an exodus, which they considered not only probable, but desirable (par. 479)

Before Croatian courts, only one person has been convicted by a final judgment for war crimes committed during “Storm”, and a total of four criminal cases have taken place. In connection with “Storm”,  charges for 24 war crimes, for which the perpetrators have not been identified, were submitted to the Croatian State Prosecution.