The European Commission’s decision to move ahead with an association agreement with Serbia despite Belgrade’s failure to arrest a key suspect could threaten efforts to bring war criminals to justice, Human Rights Watch said today.

The European Union (EU) enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, announced today that he will initial a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia tomorrow, a key step to closer ties with the EU and possible EU membership. In response, Human Rights Watch said that EU member states should refuse to sign the agreement until Serbia arrests and surrenders Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian general wanted for genocide, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

“Commissioner Rehn is rewarding Serbia even as it harbors a general accused of genocide,” said Lotte Leicht, EU advocate at Human Rights Watch. “This sends the message that the EU is prepared to let those who commit horrific crimes wait out justice and ignores the victims of horrific atrocities committed in the heart of Europe.”

After her recent visit to Belgrade at the end of October, the tribunal’s prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, stated that despite some progress, Serbia is still not doing enough to capture the remaining fugitives.

In November 2006, the European Commission emphasized full cooperation with the tribunal as a precondition for resuming the talks.

However, the EU has progressively lowered its threshold to assess Serbia’s “full cooperation” with the Yugoslav tribunal. While Commissioner Rehn previously cited the failure to arrest Mladic as one of the reasons to suspend SAA talks in May 2006, the European Commission and EU member states now seem satisfied with the declared commitment of the Serbian government to arrest fugitives. Serbian officials have made similar declarations in the past but have not followed through with action. Human Rights Watch reiterated that the EU should insist on concrete results as the benchmark to evaluate Serbia’s full cooperation.

Del Ponte has made it clear that to date, EU pressure has been the most important tool in persuading states to cooperate with the tribunal. EU pressure on Croatia was decisive in the capture in 2005 of indicted general Ante Gotovina. The EU should use this important leverage to make sure that the remaining fugitives, including Mladic, are arrested and brought to face justice before the tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.

The signing of the SAA by all EU member states, which could happen as early as January 2008, will be the next key step for Serbia on the road to EU membership. Brussels resumed talks on the SAA in June after Belgrade cooperated in the arrest of Bosnian Serb general Zdravko Tolimir. Serbia also played a role in the arrest of its former police general, Vlastimir Djordjevic, later the same month.

In February 2007, the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia’s failure to transfer Mladic to the tribunal was a violation of the Genocide Convention and ordered Serbia to cooperate fully with it.

“The EU should not offer the prospect of membership to a state that is violating the Genocide Convention,” said Leicht. “EU member states should not sign the stabilization agreement until Mladic is where he belongs: in The Hague answering for his crimes.”