(Brussels) - Human rights protections in the Western Balkans lag behind aspirations for European integration, Human Rights Watch said today. In its World Report 2010, Human Rights Watch documents human rights conditions and issues in Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Kosovo.
The report highlights mixed progress in the region on war crimes accountability and abuses against ethnic minorities, as well as obstacles to the return of displaced persons across the region and problems in the individual countries.
"If governments in the Balkans are serious about European integration, they need to give greater priority to human rights," said Wanda Troszczynska-van Genderen, Western Balkans researcher at Human Rights Watch. "That includes Croatia, a country considered to be the closest on its path to becoming an EU member, which has a lot more to do to meet European standards."
The 612-page report, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide, reflecting the extensive investigative work carried out in 2009 by Human Rights Watch staff.
Accountability for war crimes is a key issue across the region, the World Report says, both in countries' cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and in domestic war crimes prosecutions. Bosnia and Herzegovina has made strides on domestic prosecutions, despite threats to end the role of international judges and prosecutors in its special war crimes chamber. While Croatia is prosecuting war crimes suspects, a disproportionate number of defendants are Serbs, and its cooperation with the tribunal has been inconsistent.
Serbia's improved cooperation with the tribunal has not yet resulted in the arrest of the region's most wanted war crimes suspect, Ratko Mladic, the wartime military leader of the Bosnian Serbs, despite repeated promises that he would be brought to justice. Progress on accountability for war crimes has been slowest in Kosovo, but there were some encouraging signs. These include the opening of proceedings by the new EU rule-of-law and police missions in Kosovo (EULEX) in a small number of war crimes cases, including an investigation into the alleged transfers by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999 of about 400 Serbian and other captives to detention facilities in Albania.
"Justice for the victims of wartime abuses should be a priority for authorities across the region and for the EU," Troszczynska-van Genderen said.
Roma and other ethnic minorities remain marginalized and vulnerable to violence. The number of inter-ethnic incidents has not been large, but this reflects a trend toward greater segregation of ethnic communities rather than greater integration, Human Rights Watch said. Ethnically divided areas, particularly the Kosovo city of Mitrovica, remain a flashpoint.
Serbia's treatment of its Roma population is a concern. Forced evictions in Belgrade in April 2009 provided a concrete and troubling illustration of the Roma's marginal position. In Kosovo, a series of attacks on Roma in the previously peaceful town of Gnjilane in August raised concerns. A December ruling by the European Court of Human Rights underscored the discriminatory nature of Bosnia's political system and constitution, which prohibits Jews and Roma from standing for the country's presidency and parliament.
There was little progress toward durable solutions for displaced persons and refugees. The number of voluntary returns of refugees declined throughout the region, while Western European countries have been carrying out forced returns of refugees, especially to Serbia and Kosovo. Ten years after the destruction of the Roma quarter in Mitrovica, its former inhabitants remained displaced in camps in north Mitrovica (Cesmin Lug, Osterode and Leposavic), exposed to ongoing and harmful lead contamination. Human Rights Watch noted that an announcement by the EU in December of a major project with the US to resettle the inhabitants of the camps and provide them with medical treatment was a hopeful sign.
"Forced returns, especially in the absence of effective assistance, are worsening the situation for vulnerable minorities, especially for Roma in Kosovo," Troszczynska-van Genderen said. "Western governments, especially Germany, where a large number of Roma from the region have taken refuge, urgently need to revise their approach and work with the UN refugee agency to ensure that returns are sustainable."
Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about the harassment of human rights defenders and independent journalists throughout the region. The forms of harassment ranged from anonymous and public threats to restrictions on holding public events to criminal and civil libel suits against activists.
"Authorities throughout the region need to affirm their commitment to human rights and free expression and to make clear that they will not tolerate this harassment of human rights defenders and journalists," Troszczynska-van Genderen said.
Other specific concerns identified in the World Report include:
- Croatia's lack of progress in deinstitutionalizing people with mental disabilities, despite commitments to do so.
- Weakness in Croatia's asylum system, including an extremely low recognition rate of refugees and routine detention of asylum seekers.
- Bosnia's policy of indefinitely detaining terrorism suspects it has stripped of their Bosnian nationality, and efforts to deport them to countries where they face the risk of torture.
- Ethnic tension in Serbia's Albanian majority Presevo Valley region, marked in 2009 by attacks on both the police and local residents.
- Efforts by the United Nations in Kosovo to weaken and undermine the UN Human Rights Advisory Panel, the only mechanism that allows members of the public in Kosovo to bring complaints against the mission alleging human rights abuse.