Serbia: Perpetrators of war crimes must not be allowed to escape justice

The Serbian government must strengthen measures to tackle continuing impunity for crimes under international law – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – committed by Serbian police, military and paramilitary forces during the wars of the 1990s, Amnesty International said today. 

Amnesty International’s report, Serbia: Ending Impunity for Crimes under International Law, published today in Serbian, analyses the problems within the prosecutorial and judicial system in Serbia, and identifies a number of obstacles and institutional barriers to the thorough, impartial and effective investigation and prosecution of crimes under international law.

“The next few years are crucial in tackling the climate of impunity in Serbia. Time is passing, witnesses are dying, memories are fading. Perpetrators of war crimes must urgently be tried to ensure victims receive justice before it is too late,” said John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia Programme Director at Amnesty International. 

“The process of Serbia’s accession to the European Union is a unique opportunity to address the shortcomings in the legal system, and ensure that over the next few years, Serbia has the tools and resources to investigate and prosecute these crimes. Impunity for crimes under international law should be a crucial element in satisfying the criteria on the judicial system and fundamental rights.”

Ten years after the opening of a Special War Crimes Court in the capital Belgrade, only 160 or so perpetrators have been tried for the crimes under international law which took place across the region during the wars of the 1990s.

Thousands of victims – across Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo – have been denied access to justice. Few victims have received any reparation or compensation for the violations they endured.  The relatives of the disappeared are still waiting to find out who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones; women and girls who suffered war crimes of sexual violence still wait for the perpetrator to be brought to justice. 

Since the report was published in English last June, Amnesty International’s concerns have been reflected by the European Commission in their October 2014 Progress Report on Serbia, with respect to the failure to investigate high-ranking military and police officials, the lack of effective witness protection and witness support, and the lack of access to reparation, including compensation for the majority of victims of war crimes. 

However, there have also been signs of progress, for example in the reopening in September of investigations on Ministry of Interior land at Batajnica, where the bodies of ethnic Albanians were buried in 1999, and the creation of opportunities to address the failing witness protection unit with the dismissal of the head of the unit in June.

‘”Progress will only be achieved with a commitment by the Serbian government to implement concrete measures to ensure justice for all. The government must also demonstrate the political will to end the climate of impunity in Serbia,’’ said John Dalhuisen. 

Amnesty International proposes a series of measures to be taken by the Serbian government including: providing sufficient staff and resources to the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor; creating an effective Police War Crimes Investigation Unit; ensuring adequate witness support, including specialised support for the survivors of war crimes of sexual violence; and ending intimidation of witnesses protected by the Witness Protection unit. The report also highlights the lack of an effective administrative system to ensure the right of victims to reparation, including compensation.