Skip to main content

Open Letter to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic

We are writing in response to news that a number of those present in Yugoslavia who have been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have indicated a willingness to surrender voluntarily to the Tribunal. We wholeheartedly welcome these developments and appreciate your government's role in bringing them about.

 At the same time, we would like to emphasize the importance of your sustaining and expanding this cooperation with the tribunal. Such full cooperation should include unfettered access for tribunal prosecutors to relevant documents and other evidence, the swift transfer of all those who have surrendered to the Hague, apprehension of all remaining indictees at large on Yugoslav territory, and your public support for the tribunal's processes.

As you know, Human Rights Watch is a privately funded international non-governmental organization dedicated to documenting human rights abuses throughout the world. In the past ten years, we have committed substantial time and effort to investigating violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. We have documented violations of international humanitarian law by all sides to the conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and the NATO war with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

We have long advocated accountability for those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during those wars. Individual accountability for these crimes is an essential element of the transition away from the politics of interethnic suspicion and conflict that have plagued the region. It is the best way to establish a clear historical record of what happened, substitute individual responsibility for collective guilt, disassociate ethnic groups as a whole from atrocities committed in their name, and pave the way toward a sustainable Balkan peace and reintegration of the region into Europe.

In light of the severity of the abuses and the long-standing inability or unwillingness of any of the governments in the region to hold those responsible accountable, it has been our view that trials in the Hague were the best chance the people of the region had to obtain an impartial adjudication of the alleged crimes. This is not to say that we are uncritically supportive of the tribunal. But having monitored its proceedings closely, we can assure you that it meets the highest standards of criminal procedure. As evidenced by numerous decisions favorable to Serb suspects and victims, allegations of its bias against Serbs are utterly unfounded. As a close and impartial observer can attest, the proceedings have offered every guarantee necessary for a fair criminal trial: scrupulous respect for the rights of the accused, opportunities for witnesses to be heard and challenged, and the careful weighing of evidence to determine responsibility for alleged crimes.

Thus, we are pleased at the recent signs of your government's willingness to follow through on its commitment to cooperate with the tribunal. We hope that the pending transfers of indictees from Yugoslavia to the Hague reflect an irreversible shift in your government's posture toward the process of justice and accountability for war crimes in the Balkan wars. It would be a shame were these positive steps to be followed by a renewed complacency, as was the case following the arrest and transfer of Slobodan Milosevic last year. In failing to sustain the level of cooperation signaled by the Milosevic transfer last year, your government lost a significant opportunity to distance itself unequivocally from the Milosevic legacy and to build a new future in Europe.

To do that now, we urge you and the newly formed Cooperation Committee to pursue each of the following essential elements of full cooperation with the ICTY:

  • Take immediate steps to provide the ICTY with full and unfettered access to requested relevant documents in the possession of government ministries, including the Yugoslav Army, the Yugoslav Ministry of Interior, State Security, the Yugoslav Presidency, the Yugoslav cabinet, the Yugoslav Defence Ministry, the Serbian Presidency, and the Serbian cabinet. As a first step, the foregoing ministries should make an index of records and archives available to tribunal prosecutors and facilitate tribunal consultation with archivists so that the prosecutor can determine which documents are relevant to its on-going trials and investigations. Your government's obstruction of tribunal efforts to obtain relevant documents has become an extremely serious obstacle to the tribunal's work. Indeed, in the Milosevic trial, it has had the indirect effect of giving an apparent advantage to Milosevic, who seems to enjoy better access to certain government documents than do the prosecutors.
  • Take immediate steps to facilitate ICTY access to potential witnesses.
  • Ensure that those who have committed to go voluntarily to the Hague to stand trial do so as soon as possible.
  • Take immediate steps to apprehend and transfer to the Hague all remaining indictees at large in Yugoslav territory. We have expressed concern that indictees might exploit certain vague language in the recently adopted law on cooperation, and we hope that your government will not allow any such efforts to obstruct your fulfillment of your commitment to cooperate with the ICTY.
  • Make a public, principled commitment to cooperate with the tribunal and its processes. Too often, cooperation with the ICTY is presented to the Serbian people as necessary only to avoid Yugoslavia's economic isolation. Certainly this is one reason for cooperation. But a far better reason is that individual criminal responsibility is consistent with post-Milosevic Yugoslavia's commitment to uphold human rights and the rule of law on their merits and to act against their violation as a matter of principle. We urge you to exercise your leadership to make this case to the people of Yugoslavia.

Thank you for your attention to our concerns.



Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe & Central Asia division


Richard Dicker
International Justice Program

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country