To Embrace Europe, Make Human Rights a Priority
January 31, 2013
If the Western Balkan governments are serious about being a part of Europe, they should make sure their human rights records meet European standards. That applies to the EU’s next member state Croatia just as much as it does to candidate countries like Serbia.
Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher

(Brussels) – Human rights protection in the Western Balkans fails to match the region’s aspirations for European integration, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. Human Rights Watch documented human rights concerns in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo during 2012.

The Western Balkan region has a mixed record of progress toward accountability for war crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

But little progress has been made in reducing discrimination and abuses against the Roma minority or finding lasting solutions for responding to the needs of refugees and internally displaced people. Human Rights Watch also cited concerns over harassment of journalists throughout the region and country-specific issues, including LGBT rights in Serbia, and Croatia’s failure to deinstitutionalize people with intellectual or mental disabilities.

“If the Western Balkan governments are serious about being a part of Europe, they should make sure their human rights records meet European standards,” said Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. “That applies to the EU’s next member state Croatia just as much as it does to candidate countries like Serbia.”

Serbia was granted EU candidate status in March 2012. Croatia is scheduled to become the 28th EU member state in July.

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The willingness of new governments to respect rights will determine whether the Arab Spring gives birth to genuine democracy or simply spawns authoritarianism in new clothes, Human Rights Watch said.

Accountability for war crimes in domestic courts and at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) remains a key issue across the region.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the War Crimes Chamber of the State Court reached verdicts in 13 cases, with 8 convictions and 5 acquittals. The trial at the ICTY of the Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic, charged with the genocide of 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica in 1995, started in May. The trial against Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime president, who is charged with similar crimes, continued throughout the year.

Croatian domestic war crimes prosecutions improved during 2012, as local courts transferred fifteen war crimes cases to four courts designated for war crimes. Several in-absentia cases against Serbs were suspended as a result, addressing a long-standing concern about the fairness of such proceedings. The ICTY appeals chamber overturned the 2011 convictions of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, two Croatian generals, for wartime abuses against Croatian Serbs in 1995. There were fresh investigations in a case involving wartime abuses against Serbs in 1993 that has already led to the 2008 conviction of a Croatian general in the Croatian courts.

Serbia progressed in domestic war crimes prosecution, with 3 indictments, 16 pending cases, and convictions of 11 members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) for crimes during the 1999 Kosovo war, mainly against Roma and Ashkali minorities. But ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz criticized Serbia for its lack of efforts to uncover networks that helped war crimes fugitives wanted by the tribunal.

There was some progress in Kosovo in accountability for war crimes, with three war crimes verdicts by European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) judges in the Kosovo courts, and another twenty by local judges. An EULEX special investigation continued into postwar abductions, enforced disappearances, killing of Serbs, and organ trafficking. The Supreme Court of Kosovo ordered the retrial of Fatmir Limaj and three other KLA members on charges of war crimes against Kosovo Serb and Kosovo Albanian civilians in 1999. Former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and two co-defendants were acquitted by the ICTY in November after their partial re-trial for crimes against humanity.

“There’s a lot more work to do on accountability for wartime abuses in the Balkans, especially in the national courts,” Gall said. “Progress depends on political will from governments in the region, and continued support from the EU and US.”

Roma and other ethnic minorities faced discrimination and remained marginalized across the region during 2012. Serbian authorities evicted Roma from informal settlements without adequate assistance for those affected. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Roma, Jews, and other ethnic minorities remain barred by the constitution from running for high political office and the authorities made little progress in addressing the issue, despite EU pressure to carry out a binding 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights.

Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian minorities in Kosovo also face discrimination and marginalization – a situation exacerbated by continued deportations from Western Europe to Kosovo and the failure by local authorities to aid Roma and other forced returnees. The EU intensified calls on Serbia to stop the influx of asylum seekers, mainly Roma, or risk visa-free travel to the EU. There were credible reports that Serbian border guards prevented Serbian citizens of perceived Romani origin from crossing the Serbian border to EU member state Hungary, in response to the EU pressure, which raised concerns about ethnic profiling.

“Forced deportations without adequate assistance not only raise serious human rights concerns regarding those affected by returns but also increases the vulnerability of minorities in Kosovo, in particular Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian,” Gall said. “Western states should halt deportations of minorities back to Kosovo until it has demonstrated its ability to adequately support and reintegrate those already sent back.”

There was little progress toward durable solutions for internally displaced people and refugees from the wars in the Western Balkans, Human Rights Watch said. Voluntary returns of refugees to their pre-war homes remain low.

There are also concerns about the ability of countries in the region to host and fairly process asylum seekers from other countries. The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, indicated in September that defects in Serbia’s asylum system mean it cannot be considered a safe country of asylum, and expressed concerns about Croatia’s reception capacity, its low rate of asylum approvals, and its treatment of unaccompanied migrant children.

The harassment of independent journalists was a serious concern, Human Rights Watch said, with incidents of verbal and physical harassment of journalists recorded in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo during 2012.