Impunity for mass graves, indifference to the families of the disappeared
On the occasion of the International Day of the Disappeared
The International Day of the Disappeared is marked on 30 August, and is aimed at raising awareness about the destiny of forcibly disappeared persons. The Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) draws attention to the fact that, according to the findings in 2015 of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances (Committee), Serbia has failed to investigate and punish those responsible for the mass graves holding bodies of Kosovo Albanians in Serbia, including high-ranking persons involved, and has failed to provide reparations to the families of the victims.
According to the findings of the Committee, which has reviewed the implementation of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Convention on Enforced Disappearances) in Serbia, the institutions of Serbia should ensure that all cases of enforced disappearances are fully and impartially investigated without any delay, and that those responsible, including the commanding officers and civilian leaders, are punished according to the severity of the crime. In this regard, the Committee has urged Serbia to provide adequate resources to the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, and to open the military and police archives. The Committee has emphasized the need to bring to justice all those responsible for the transport of bodies of Kosovo Albanians to secret locations in Serbia.
The Committee has also pointed out Serbia’s obligation to protect the rights of the families of disappeared persons, and has recommended the introduction of a comprehensive and gender-sensitive system of reparations along with access to medical and psychological rehabilitation for all those who have suffered damage as a direct consequence of enforced disappearance. The inclusion of protection of the victims’ rights of families of the disappeared in the existing Bill on the Rights of War Veterans, Disabled War Veterans, Civilian Invalids of War and their Family Members, is among the measures that Serbia should take.
In January 2015, regarding the consideration by the Committee of the implementation of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, the HLC sent a report to the Committee on the situation in Serbia regarding this issue. The report stressed the impunity for the concealment of the bodies of Kosovo Albanians in mass graves in Serbia and the inadequate legal framework regarding the legal status of disappeared persons and their families. Namely, the Law on the Rights on Civilian War Invalids
does not treat the families of the disappeared persons as victims. It conditions the rights under this law by declaring a disappeared person deceased, which additionally traumatises the families. The Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Issues (Ministry of Labour) in
December 2014, without consulting the Association of Victims, proposed a Draft Law on the protection of civilian war victims, which did nothing to eliminate the deficiencies of the existing law regarding the situation of disappeared persons. The HLC has also pointed out the lack of adequate and efficient judicial protection of the right to compensation for families of the forcibly disappeared. As a separate issue, in the report the HLC stressed the lack of investigation into the cases of the bodies of Kosovo Albanians being concealed in mass graves in Serbia, which is a violation of the victims’ families right to the truth about the enforced disappearances of their loved ones. This is something Serbia is obliged to ensure, by its ratification of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances. The report also analyses the case of the disappearance of the Catovic brothers from Sjeverin; they have not been found, and their family is being continually denied the rights guaranteed by the Convention by the Serbian authorities.
In an oral hearing before the Committee, the President of the Commission for Disappeared Persons of the Government of Serbia, Veljko Odalovic, stated that Serbia has spent about 13 million euros in financial support to families of the disappeared. The HLC doubts the truth of the said amount, because of the shortcomings of the existing law that prevent or significantly impede the families of the disappeared from exercising their rights under this law. To the HLC’s request (available only in Serbian) for information of public importance to be provided, including precise information on the way the above mentioned amount has been spent, Odalović replied (available only in Serbian) that he had at the oral hearing “presented the data about the assumed amount that the families of disappeared persons exercise in the Republic of Serbia on an annual basis” [HLC italics], which he received from the Ministry of Labour. After sending the same request to the Ministry of Labour, the HLC received the answer (available only in Serbian) that it was a “an assumed amount”, obtained by multiplying the number of disappeared persons registered at the Ministry with the assumed number of 2.5 household members and a monthly fee.
In April 2015, the HLC introduced the Model Law on the Rights of Civilian Victims of War as a starting point for dialogue on improving the position of victims in Serbia, including the position of families of the disappeared, with the aim of correcting the deficiencies of the existing law in this field.
According to the ICRC, more than 10,000 people are still being searched for; these are people who went missing during and-or in relation to the armed conflict in the former Yugoslavia.