Authorities of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia should take measures against extreme nationalists who unlawfully harass and threaten civic activists, Human Rights Watch said today.

The New York-based group criticized the Serbian government’s passivity in the face of repeated attempts by extreme nationalists to disrupt an exhibition of war photographs by American artist Ron Haviv, organized by local activists. The exhibition mostly consists of photographs documenting war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

“By failing to respond to this kind of harassment, the authorities essentially condone it,” said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “The problem stems from the government’s reluctance to seriously confront the issue of war crimes against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. Those who wish to talk or learn about the crimes face intimidation, and the government tacitly consents.”

In the latest incident on August 25, 2002, supporters of former Bosnian Serb leader and war crime indictee Radovan Karadzic prevented an opening of the exhibition in the central Serbian city of Kragujevac. The protesters shouted nationalist slogans and insulted visitors, leading exhibition organizers to suspend the opening. The incident in Kragujevac follows similar events in the towns of Uzice and Cacak. Ron Haviv’s exhibition in Uzice closed on June 5, 2002, five days ahead of schedule, when a group of nationalists took photos off the wall as the police stood idly by. In Cacak, on July 15, protesters physically attacked one of the organizers and injured his head; the organizers were forced to move the exhibition from the city’s Cultural Center to a smaller, less suitable space.

Serbian law prohibits and provides for punishment for disruption of the public peace, as well as physical attacks. To date, the Serb authorities have failed to denounce the nationalist actions or launch any investigations into possible criminal responsibility for the incidents. The government has also failed to react to threats received by human rights activists campaigning for public debate on war crimes. In a statement published in Belgrade newspapers on August 11, 2002, an association of Serb nationalists threatened that “in order to prevent the anti-Serb activities of the non-governmental organizations, [the association of Serb nationalists] will use all permissible civilized means, and, if necessary, those that are not.” The statement singled out Natasa Kandic, director of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center, and also referred to other individuals involved in the campaign.

“The extremists have free rein, because the government stands aside and does not respond,” said Andersen. She said the government’s dismal record in domestic war crimes trials, and its half-hearted efforts to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), made it clear why Serbian nationalists feel free to intimidate those who seek debate on war crimes.

Since the fall of former President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, Yugoslavia’s domestic courts have convicted only one person on war crimes charges.

The new authorities in Belgrade have transferred five ICTY indictees to the custody of the Hague tribunal; eight more indictees have surrendered voluntarily. Human Rights Watch attributes the government’s limited cooperation with the ICTY to international pressure, rather than a genuine commitment by Serb officials to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Seventeen indictees are believed still to be at large within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.