Hague Coercion

Author: Sonja Biserko
Uploaded: Thursday, 23 June, 2005

Editorial translated from Helsinška Povelja (Belgrade) analyses the effects of pressure from the Hague tribunal in Serbia over the past years

Cooperation with The Hague remains the most traumatic issue for the entire Serbian elite. Lack of readiness to confront it has led to an attempt to deflect responsibility by invoking an alleged anti-Serb conspiracy. Although the intensity of international pressure varied during the decade following the establishment of the Hague tribunal, time showed that cooperation with The Hague is the ‘question of all questions’ for all the countries that emerged from the former Yugoslavia, not least because the tribunal epitomizes the fundamental values of contemporary European civilisation.

By signing the Dayton Agreement, Slobodan Milošević bound himself to cooperate with the Hague tribunal. [See quote.!] This led to the establishment of a Hague tribunal office in Belgrade, following which Dražen Erdemović and Slavko Dokmanović were surrendered. It was clear already then that Belgrade’s strategy was to amnesty the JNA and the political leaders, and to compromise the court by manipulating witnesses. Slavko Dokmanović was a victim of this strategy, in that responsibility for the Vukovar tragedy was placed upon the local leaders and territorial defence.

It was only with the indictment of Slobodan Milošević that Serbia’s responsibility for the wars in the former Yugoslav area started to be defined. With the arrival of DOS in power, the international community expected greater cooperation with the Hague. But DOS soon split on this issue. Vojislav Koštunica, who was then president of FRY, insisted on passing a law regarding cooperation with The Hague, seeking in this manner to postpone the issue. The Serbian prime minister Zoran Đinđić, on the other hand, realised early on that cooperation with the Hague tribunal was not only an international obligation, but also a life-or-death issue for Serbian society.

His government delivered Milošević to The Hague, along with fifteen other suspects, while being exposed to great pressure and threats - including from Koštunica. After Đinđić’s assassination cooperation with The Hague was largely suspended; but under international pressure it revived at the start of 2005. This interruption had a damaging effect on Serbia, in that it contributed to the country’s stagnation, due to the attitude of the international community and especially the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Vojislav Koštunica began his premiership by continuing to ignore the Hague tribunal, saying that surrendering war criminals to it would not be his priority. His position that ‘we need not hurry to satisfy Mrs Del Ponte, since it would be unjust, undignified and unpatriotic’ was widely accepted. He gained the support of the SPS and the Radicals primarily because of his stance that individuals should not be surrendered on the grounds of command responsibility. This was very popular. Boris Tadić declared at the time that ‘the Hague tribunal’s insistence on command responsibility clouds the issue of individual responsibility for eventual criminal deeds’. One of Koštunica’s arguments was that ‘cooperation with The Hague, as well as acceptance of one’s own responsibility for crimes, is made more difficult by the fact that the Albanians and their leaders have been practically proclaimed innocent by the court in The Hague’.

The recent law allowing for financial assistance to those indicted by The Hague, on the other hand, has managed to stir public protests, given that the aid involved, according to a rough calculation, amounts to 100,000 euros per person per year. Dragoljub Mićunović has interpreted the law as the state offering to back the suspects and admit collective guilt. Many media commentators have cynically noted that what was involved was ‘an export of goods to the international market in human heads’.

Cooperation with The Hague practically ended after the December 2003 elections, prompting Hague tribunal president Theodor Meron to write to the Security Council. His letter stated that the problem lay not only in lack of willingness to arrest those charged by The Hague, but also in denial of access to witnesses and key documents. One of Koštunica’s adviser, Aleksandar Fatić, depicted the letter as ‘a serious self-incrimination on the part of the Tribunal’, which is ‘increasingly losing the character of a juridical body in favour of a biased political institution’.

The more rational Serbian public voices, especially people like Goran Svilanović who understand the importance of cooperation with The Hague, warned that Judge Meron’s letter would have a negative impact on Serbia’s international standing, and that the Serbian government should waste no time in defining its attitude towards The Hague. Svilanović argued that the government should urgently form a national council for cooperation with The Hague, stressing that ‘the government can take the view that it need not cooperate, but it should explain why and take responsibility for it.’

However, despite increased pressure to deliver Ratko Mladić and repeated insistence on the part of the Tribunal that he was living in Serbia, Vojislav Koštunica’s reply was that ‘it is difficult to prove that someone is not living on the territory of a state, which is why there should be a degree of trust and a two-sided cooperation with the court in The Hague, as well as with friendly countries.’ The Serbian Orthodox Church also took up the defence of Hague suspects, especially Mladić and Karadžić. Bishop Gregorije proclaimed that the time had come to ‘draw a line’, and that if necessary ‘a thousand or fifteen thousand Serbs should be surrendered to The Hague’; Jeremija Starovlah, meanwhile, openly declared that it was the duty of every Serb priest to aid Radovan Karadžić.

Responding to such statements, Carla del Ponte accused the Church of ‘involvement in politics and hiding those indicted for war crimes’, to which Archbishop Amfilohije replied that her attitude to the Church re

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