EU must ensure 'justice' for victims of 1990s war

EU has 'key opportunity' to address 'shortcomings' of Serbian judicial system in forthcoming negotiations, writes Sian Jones.

By Sian Jones

24 Jun 2014

Imagine a knock at your door and seeing your son being dragged away, never to see him again. This happened to Nesrete Kumnova, a Kosovo Albanian. On 31 March 1999, her son Albion was arrested by Serbian police in their home in Gjakovë/ Đakova. She has never seen him since. His body has never been found. “If I could know where Albion my son is, and if I could bury him and put a flower on his grave, I would be in a better place”, said Kumnova.

“If I could know where Albion my son is, and if I could bury him and put a flower on his grave, I would be in a better place” - Nesrete Kumnova

Nesrete is one of the thousands of victims of crimes committed by Serbian police, military and paramilitary forces in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, during the 1990s war.

Nesrete and others are still awaiting justice. But, after more than fifteen years, Nesrete refuses to stop seeking answers to what happened to her son, or to give up hope. Amnesty International is also working to expose these crimes under international law and seek justice for Nesrete, her son and the many other victims.

Our research has shown that a culture of impunity is pervasive in Serbia. Since Belgrade’s special war crimes court’s establishment in 2003, only 170 suspects have been prosecuted. The office of the war crimes prosecutor also lacks the staff and resources to adequately address the massive legacy of crimes which remain to be investigated.

Hundreds if not thousands of perpetrators and their crimes have yet to be investigated, prosecuted or punished. Apart from the prosecutions at the International criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, most senior military and police officials (who issued orders and failed to prevent the most egregious crimes) have escaped prosecution. Some even remain as high-ranking members of the Serbian military and police forces.

Many of those brave enough to come forward to testify against former colleagues have allegedly been intimidated rather than protected by the witness protection unit. Those who are prepared to testify have not been given adequate support and assistance. Too often, even those who have seen the perpetrators punished do not receive reparation or compensation for the harm they have suffered.

The next few years are crucial in tackling the climate of impunity in Serbia. Every day that passes, witnesses are dying, their health is failing, and their memories are fading, making it harder to bring about prosecutions that will bring perpetrators to justice.

"Serbia’s accession to the European Union is a key opportunity to address the shortcomings in the Serbian prosecutorial and judicial systems, and ensure justice for the crimes of the 1990s war"

But Serbia’s accession to the European Union is a key opportunity to address the shortcomings in the Serbian prosecutorial and judicial systems, and ensure justice for the crimes of the 1990s war.

Amnesty International is calling on the European commission to urgently ensure that measures to end impunity for war crimes in Serbia are included in the forthcoming negotiations on chapter 23, which covers the judicial system and fundamental rights. This is key to satisfying the accession criteria on this chapter of the acquis communautaire.

The commission should also ensure that Serbia has the tools and resources to investigate and prosecute crimes, and rigorously monitor progress in bringing those responsible to justice.

We’re not unrealistic: we know that the victims will only truly receive justice when the Serbian government clearly demonstrates the political will to end the climate of impunity, and implements concrete measures to ensure justice for Nesrete Kumnova and others.

Serbia cannot afford to delay. And the EU can and must play its part in ensuring justice is served.

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