NATO U-turn on war criminals
by Mark John and Patrick McLoughlin
NATO offered Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro on 28 November 2006 the first step on the road to membership despite unresolved concerns over war crimes, and said other Balkan countries could expect firm invitations to join in 2008. ‘Taking into account the long-term stability in the Western Balkans and acknowledging the progress made so far by Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, we have today invited these countries to join Partnership for Peace,’ NATO leaders declared after a summit in Riga.
It was a major reversal in a policy that until now required Serbia and Bosnia to show full cooperation on tracking down war criminals still at large before receiving the coveted status. Chief UN war-crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte attacked the NATO decision as a reward for non-compliance. ‘The prosecutor is very surprised by the decision. She regrets that it was made, that NATO changed its position because it looks like a reward for not fully cooperating with the prosecutor,’ her spokesman said in The Hague.
Partnership for Peace sets out a programme of NATO help for partners in revamping their armies and other defence reforms. The NATO leaders welcomed reform efforts in Albania, Croatia and Macedonia and said those that met alliance criteria could expect to receive invitations to join at a 2008 summit. The European Union suspended talks on closer ties with Belgrade in May after it failed to arrest former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, wanted on genocide charges over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The Netherlands, which had UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica at the time and hosts the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, dropped its objection at the last minute after winning assurances of strict monitoring. ‘We'll keep up the pressure,’ NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a final news conference.
The United States, Britain and the Netherlands had earlier insisted Serbia and Bosnia show they were doing all they could to capture top war-crimes indictees from the 1992-5 Bosnian war -- former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Mladic.
Diplomats said a letter from Serbian President Boris Tadic appealing to NATO to support democrats in his country influenced the decision, as did a late change of heart by Washington. British prime minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said London had agreed after Belgrade showed signs of better cooperation. He cited no evidence. ‘I think overall people are much happier about Serbia being in the right direction,’ the spokesman said.
An EU official said the NATO decision would have no impact on Brussels' position on resuming talks with Serbia, which is in the hands of the European Commission, not the member states. ‘If they want to go soft, that's their decision,’ the official said. The summit declaration set no preconditions for Serbia and Bosnia joining the partnership programme, but the leaders said of the need for them to cooperate with the war-crimes tribunal: ‘We will closely monitor their respective efforts in this regard.’ Del Ponte has given Montenegro, a new state which broke from Serbia after a referendum this year, a clean bill of health.
Reuters, 29 November 2006