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Yugoslavia: War-Crimes Law Weak Internationally But Powerful At Home

  • Don Hill

The Yugoslav federal parliament passed a law last week mandating what it called "cooperation" with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Critics say the law does little to bring Yugoslavia into compliance with UN resolutions on transferring war-crimes indictees to the court in The Hague. The effects on the ground were potent, however. One war-crimes suspect committed suicide, while two others announced their intentions to surrender to the tribunal.

Prague, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the Yugoslav federal parliament passed a law last week allowing for indicted war-crimes suspects to be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for trial, Western critics said the action will have little effect under international law.

But in Serbia and Montenegro -- the constituent republics of the Yugoslav Federation -- the effect was dramatic. The 64-year-old interior minister under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, Vlajko Stojilkovic, walked out of parliament shortly after the vote on 11 April, paused on the building's steps, and shot himself in the head. He died on 13 April in hospital. He was one of those who had been indicted for war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Stojilkovic was charged with directing a police terror campaign in Kosovo in 1999, in which Serb forces are blamed for killing thousands of Kosovar Albanians and driving hundreds of thousands out of the province. The campaign stopped only after U.S.-led NATO bombing ended Serb domination of Kosovo.

The legislators passed the law after complex domestic negotiations and under intense pressure from the West to cooperate with the tribunal. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, admired in the West for his role in ending Milosevic's rule in 2000, at first resisted the legislation, then reluctantly supported it after the United States froze about $40 million in pending U.S. aid because of Belgrade's recalcitrance.

After Stojilkovic's suicide, Kostunica drew a lesson from the incident. He called it a warning to the West not to place too much pressure on Yugoslavia.

In the meantime, however, two former Yugoslav officials have announced their intentions to surrender to the United Nations war-crimes tribunal. Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said today that former Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic has -- in his words -- clearly expressed his desire to surrender voluntarily. Sainovic was a top Milosevic aide and was indicted by the UN tribunal for crimes against humanity during the 1999 Kosovo war.

Last weekend, another accused war criminal, Dragoljub Ojdanic, commander of the Yugoslav Army under Milosevic during the Kosovo action, announced that he also intends to surrender to the tribunal.

Vojislav Selezan, Ojdanic's lawyer, spoke for his client on 14 April. "It is sure that he will not do anything against the law. He will not run. He never ran. He is not Hajduk [legendary mountain bandits]," Selezan said.

Earlier, in a newspaper interview, Ojdanic sounded as unrepentant as his former chief, Milosevic, who already is standing trial before the tribunal. He said his surrender will be "peaceful and dignified." He said, "My departure to The Hague is now my legal obligation just as it was when I had to defend [my] country."

Also last week, came a report that one of the indicted Serbs most wanted by the UN tribunal, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, had decided to take the Hajduk route. Belgrade journalist Ivan Nikolic wrote in the electronic newsletter for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting that Mladic had fled from Serbia to Montenegro to avoid capture.

Nikolic said Mladic had been living openly in Belgrade. The reporter, quoting police and tribunal sources whom he did not name, said there are indications that Kostunica and other Yugoslav officials warned Mladic in February to go into hiding. Nikolic said Mladic hid first in the Serbian town of Valjevo and then left for Montenegro.

A delicate question of legal semantics underlies the discussion of what real effect last week's Yugoslav legislation may have. To the international tribunal, the issue of whether Yugoslavia was bound to arrest and turn over indicted suspects was settled in November 1998. That's when the UN Security Council adopted a resolution reminding Yugoslavia that surrendering its war-crimes suspects was an international obligation.

Kostunica's federal government has resisted that obligation from the start, citing a constitutional provision against extraditing citizens for trial in foreign courts. In fact, however, extradition -- that is, delivery by one country of an accused person to the jurisdiction of another country for trial -- is not an issue under international law. The tribunal is an international entity that already claims jurisdiction, not a foreign government.

Yugoslav Minister of Justice Savo Markovic seemed to ignore this point 12 April when he welcomed the new law. "The law is not only about extradition to The Hague tribunal, but it preserves the sovereignty and independence and national dignity of Yugoslavia," Markovic said.

Critics remain dissatisfied with the Yugoslav position. The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement saying the legislation falls short of fulfilling the country's international obligations. HRW says the legislation applies -- contrary to international law -- only to people already indicted. The watchdog group said it fails to provide full and free access by tribunal prosecutors to witnesses and documents.

For the United States to resume its financial aid to Yugoslavia, the U.S. secretary of state must certify that Belgrade is complying with its international obligations to the tribunal. The deadline for that certification passed two weeks ago, and the aid was automatically frozen. The certification has not yet been issued.