Politics

NGOs Call for Register of Victims of 1990s Wars

By 29 January 2018

ZAGREB, January 29, 2018 - Disputes about the number of victims of the World War II Ustasha-run concentration camp Jasenovac are the best proof of the importance of establishing a precise register of victims of the 1991-2001 wars in the former Yugoslavia to prevent manipulation and different interpretations of those events for daily political purposes, participants in the Transitional Justice Forum said in Sarajevo on Monday.

The two-day event was organised by nongovernmental organisations supporting the project Coalition for RECOM, a regional commission which is expected to establish facts about war crimes committed in the region in the conflicts in the late 20th century.

The Sarajevo conference, the 11th of the kind, brought together representatives of nongovernmental organisations from all countries in the region, who discussed possible consequences of the EU's new strategy for the Western Balkans in the part concerning transitional justice and ways of coming to terms with the consequences of war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia.

David Hudson of the EU Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations said the EU was clearly interested in strengthening the region's stability through reconciliation and facing the consequences of war crimes. Without reconciliation, the Western Balkans cannot be within EU structures as it would cause instability in the EU, said Hudson. He said that it was up to each country in the region to define its approach to the issue while respecting European standards, but that once they clearly assumed responsibility for coming to terms with the past, they would have to strictly honour their commitments.

Hudson was explicit in his statement that this referred to those former Yugoslav countries that were still not members of the EU and wanted to join, explaining that the EU could not impose specific obligations and expectations on member-states Slovenia or Croatia as rules applying to other member-states with regard to the rule of law also applied to them.

Vesna Teršelić of the Zagreb-based Documenta nongovernmental organisation said that proven facts bound the EU to do more than just following trials in EU aspirants as well as to a more active approach regarding the ways Slovenia and Croatia can participate in establishing facts about the past wars. She cited as an example the consequences of the genocide committed in Srebrenica in 1995, stressing that it was an important topic for the EU and provided an opportunity for discussion among EU member-states as they, too, were bound by the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

"If the member-countries are not respecting ICTY rulings, and Croatia is not, then that, too, is a topic for the EU," Teršelić said, noting that she was referring to statements by Croatian state officials regarding the ICTY ruling in the Prlić and others case. Responding to such phenomena is an opportunity for the EU to promote its transitional justice strategy, she said.

Nataša Kandić, head of the Serbian Humanitarian Law Centre, said that most presidents of the countries in the region had confirmed their support to RECOM and that now they should be asked to provide concrete support, as should the EU. She recalled that ten years ago, when the RECOM project was launched, there was uncertainty as to which approach to coming to terms with the past was more appropriate - a regional or a national one.

Eventually everyone agreed that naming the victims and making a regional register of victims with the circumstances of their death was of the utmost importance for beginning the process of enlargement and everyone understood that this was directly linked with the rule of law and the prosecution of war crimes, said Kandić.

At the political level, all politicians with whom consultations were held agreed that victims' names were the most important and that one should put an end to cases like the Jasenovac concentration camp which has caused problems for decades, with various figures being mentioned and only a minimum number of victims' names being offered, Kandić said.

"For more than 50 years there have been 80,000 names while numbers have varied," Kandić said, stressing that this was proof of the importance of identifying the victims of the past wars and determining the circumstances of their death as a precondition of normalisation of relations and reconciliation between former Yugoslav countries.

Kandić believes that it is not good that Slovenia and Croatia's EU entry has resulted in the lack of a common approach to the past wars and notes that Croatia has changed its position on the RECOM initiative in relation to the period when its president was Ivo Josipović, who, she says, as a jurist understood well the importance of such a project. "I am one of the few people who hope that Croatia will return to the project," she said, concluding that the initiative offered a universal standard for coming to terms with the past that could be invaluable in establishing the rule of law which the EU would then be able to supervise and evaluate more efficiently.

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