(Brussels) - The European Union's commitment to international justice will be measured by its willingness to pressure Serbia in the months to come to arrest the two remaining war crimes suspects, Human Rights Watch said today. EU member states decided on October 25, 2010, to pass Serbia's application for EU membership on to the European Commission for an official assessment despite Serbia's failure to arrest the fugitives Goran Hadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander during the war in Bosnia, is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys after the fall of Srebrenica in 1995, the worst atrocity on European soil since the World War II. Hadzic, a Croatian Serb, is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the prosecution of Croat and other non-Serb civilians in parts of Serb-controlled Croatia.

Full cooperation with the ICTY is a key political condition for Serbia to become an EU member state. In today's decision, EU Foreign Affairs Ministers decided that Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY will be thoroughly considered at each next step on the EU accession path and that decisions to go forward each time will be taken unanimously by EU member states. Using this provision, the EU should use all upcoming opportunities to press Serbia to cooperate fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Human Rights Watch said. It should also actively engage with and assist Belgrade in apprehending and arresting the suspects. 

 "The European Union should not give in to Serbia's half-hearted cooperation with The Hague," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "The EU needs to go beyond lip-service to accountability, or the victims of Srebrenica will never get the justice they deserve."

Both suspects are believed to be in reach of Serbian authorities. Mladic has been at liberty since his indictment in 1995. The Bosnian Serb's wartime political leader, Radovan Karadzic, is currently on trial at the ICTY for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. But if Mladic, indicted as Karadzic's fellow architect of Srebrenica, is not held to account, many will feel justice has not been served.

The tribunal is scheduled to complete all first-instance trials by the end of 2012. Although there are plans to retain some residual capacity to try suspects arrested after that date, the closure of the court and prosecutors' office will make it harder to secure convictions, and is likely to lessen political pressure to arrest any suspects who remain at large, Human Rights Watch said.

"The EU's credibility on international justice is on the line," Roth said. "If the EU doesn't follow through to ensure the arrest of the tribunal's last fugitives for war crimes committed in the heart of Europe, it will be hard to insist on justice for such crimes elsewhere."

The European Commission may take a year or more to assess Serbia's application for membership. During that time, member states, the European Commission, the EU president, and the EU's foreign policy high representative should continue to monitor closely Serbia's cooperation with the tribunal, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 20, the ICTY prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, indicated that he is dissatisfied with Serbia's efforts to arrest Mladic, noting a gap between political pronouncements by Serbian authorities and the action he sees on the ground. He urged European capitals to maintain pressure on Serbia, saying, "The non-arrest of Mladic would be the worst signal you could give to all future tribunals. It would somehow give the signal to perpetrators that you can sit out international justice; that political interest is diminishing over time and that at the end of the day, impunity prevails." The prosecutor will next make a public assessment of Belgrade's cooperation in a briefing before the United Nations Security Council in December.

While in Bosnia-Herzegovina on October 20, the EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, said, "I firmly believe the EU's international weight and credibility begins in its immediate neighbourhood."

That should be understood as both a promise and a pledge to the victims of war crimes and genocide in the region, Human Rights Watch said. It should mean that the EU and its member states will not rest until those charged with these crimes are arrested and brought to justice. More concretely, it should mean that the EU will embark upon genuine and sustained pressure on Serbia to deliver the fugitives. The EU should also support the Serbian government by providing additional experts, resources, and support to ensure that the two men are arrested.

"Time is running out for the tribunal, and as it prepares to close, staff members are already starting to seek jobs elsewhere," Roth said. "Rather than soften its stance, the EU should redouble pressure to see justice done for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Europe. The EU's actions now will be the yardstick by which its commitment to justice will be measured."

On February 26, 2007, the International Court of Justice ruled that Serbia had breached its obligations under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide by failing to prevent or punish the genocide at Srebrenica. In particular, the court found that Serbia's failure to transfer Mladic to the tribunal amounts to an ongoing violation of its obligations under the Genocide Convention. Arresting Mladic would bring Serbia into compliance with the International Court of Justice's order to transfer suspects accused of genocide to the tribunal and otherwise to cooperate with it fully.