War Crimes Prosecutions Still Hampered by Lack of Regional Cooperation

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Limited resources, victims’ mistrust of courts and the problem of bringing fugitives to justice are the most pressing issues that war crimes prosecutors in the former Yugoslavia are facing, a BIRN conference was told.

Photo: BIRN

Prosecutors from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro and representatives of international missions told a conference organised by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Pristina on Friday that there is a need for the new and improved collaboration protocols between former Yugoslav countries to improve the exchange of evidence and extradition of war crimes indictees.

Ivan Matesic, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor – Head of the Department for War Crimes, told the conference entitled ‘Archives and Conflict Prevention: Lessons from the Past, Visions for the Future’ that his country currently has 260 pending war crimes cases that need to be investigated, and in half of them the suspects are fugitives abroad and can’t be brought to court.

Most of the people under investigation for war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina are either in Serbia or Croatia, which both refuse to extradite their citizens to Sarajevo.

But other issues are also hampering regional cooperation, such unwillingness to prosecute senior officials responsible for war crimes and a lack of trust among victims, according to Matesic.

“Victims don’t trust judicial institutions from other countries in the region. And for a case to be transferred to the Serbian or Croatian prosecution offices, victims need to give consent and that often takes a lot of time and effort from the Bosnian prosecution to convince them,” Matesic said.

War victims from Bosnia and Herzegovina have expressed discontent about decisions by the Croatian and Serbian judiciaries, which have often classified crimes differently than their counterparts in Sarajevo. Cases related to Srebrenica are prosecuted in Serbia as war crimes rather than genocide, while Croatian courts often give lower sentences to Croat defendants.

Cooperation in war crimes prosecutions is particularly difficult for Kosovo because it is not recognised by its neighbours Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Kosovo war crimes prosecutor Drita Hajdari said that it is also a challenge to get evidence from the successor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, a United Nations institution. Kosovo is not a member of the UN as it is not recognised by the majority of member states.

“Our requests to states rarely get positive answers. And in the case of the ICTY, as it is a UN institution, we can’t cooperate with it directly, so our requests need to go through the justice ministry and EU office, which we are often reluctant to do as the information is very sensitive,” Hajdar said.

“We have sensitive cases, and often there is a privacy concern as the information may be leaked,” she explained.

Civil society organisations also criticised the growing number of trials in absentia in the region.

Sofija Todorovic, director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia, in absentia trials are often used for political purposes and undermine the right to a fair trial.

Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia have all amended their legislation to allow absentia trials to take place. When Serbia launched a war crimes case against Croatian officers last year it caused a political row between the two countries.

The conference also heard civil society activists and members of cultural and memorial institutions discussing the role of archives in fighting the growing problem of revisionism in the region, as well as preventing the recurrence of crimes.

Velma Saric, director of Post Conflict Research Centre, said this is particularly relevant in countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina where young people are still going to segregated schools and learning different versions of the history of the 1990s wars.

“For us, young people are the key audience and key partner. We used the archives of courts and other civil society groups to create educational programmes and materials. We want to show and teach young people the war through court-determined facts,” Saric said.

Nikola Mokrovic, an archivist from Documenta in Croatia, explained how the rapid pace of technological advancements poses a significant challenge, as archives must constantly adapt to new formats, storage systems and digital preservation methods.

Azir Osmanovic from the Srebrenica Memorial Center emphasised the importance of cooperation and partnership with organisations such as BIRN in order to preserve memories and create educational projects together with war survivors.

The conference also heard a presentation about BIRN’s updated Bitter Land database about mass graves from the wars in the former Yugoslavia and about Reporting House, BIRN’s museum focusing on the role of media in the 1990s wars, which is set to open later this year in Sarajevo.