(Brussels) - The European Union should send a signal to Croatian authorities that they should continue to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including by handing over key documents, Human Rights Watch said in a letter today. The EU foreign ministers are expected to adopt conclusions on the Western Balkans at a meeting of the General Affairs and External Relations Council on February 23 and 24, 2009 in Brussels.
The tribunal's prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, has repeatedly asked Croatian authorities to hand over all the military documents related to "Operation Storm," the large-scale military operation involving the Croatian Armed Forces in 1995 to regain control over Serb-held territories in Croatia during the war in the Balkans. These documents are expected to assist the tribunal in the ongoing trials of the three former Croatian army generals: Ante Gotovina; Ivan Cermak; and Mladen Markac. While the prosecutor commended recent improvements in Croatia's cooperation at a closed briefing of EU ambassadors earlier this week, more is needed to ensure full cooperation with the tribunal.
"The EU should emphasize that if the Croatian government is serious about membership, it should continue to show it is committed to justice for serious wartime abuses, including those allegedly carried out by its own senior officers," said Lotte Leicht, EU advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "Recent progress in Zagreb's cooperation with the tribunal should be followed up with EU pressure to make sure it is not short-lived."
Croatia has held EU candidate status since June 2004 and started EU accession talks in October 2005. It has so far fulfilled the requirements in eight of the 35 chapters in its accession package. EU member states are expected to decide whether to open negotiations on progress made in the justice sector during the next EU-Croatia accession conference in April.
Human Rights Watch highlighted the effectiveness of the EU's consistent pressure on countries in the Western Balkans. In Croatia, it played a crucial role in persuading the authorities to cooperate in the capture and surrender of General Gotovina to the tribunal in 2005. Last year's arrest and transfer of Radovan Karadzic by the Serbian authorities to the tribunal is further proof that EU pressure can deliver results.
"The EU should consider how to use its valuable leverage to press Croatia to continue efforts to hand over the requested documents to The Hague," said Leicht. "That includes assessing Croatia's cooperation with the tribunal in deciding whether to move forward with the accession process."
The prosecution raised the issue of Croatia's limited cooperation in providing documents before the tribunal's judges in June 2008. Since then, the court has ordered Croatia to provide a detailed report specifying efforts to obtain the documents. While the Croatian authorities provided that report and additional papers, key documents remained unaccounted for at the time of the prosecutor's briefing to the United Nations Security Council in December 2008. The prosecutor asked that further steps be taken to secure them, which was reiterated during his visit to Zagreb on February 6, 2009. Recently, the Croatian authorities have accounted for additional documents wanted by the prosecutor and have pledged to take steps to secure them.
The trial of Gotovina, Cermak, and Markac before the Yugoslav tribunal began in March 2008 and is ongoing.