In Serbia, Justice Overruled: 25 Years after NATO Intervention, a Pass for Atrocity Crimes

In Serbia, Justice Overruled: 25 Years after NATO Intervention, a Pass for Atrocity Crimes

[Fred Abrahams covered the Kosovo conflict for Human Rights Watch. He wrote the book Modern Albania and co-wrote A Village Destroyed: War Crimes in Kosovo. Marija Ristic covered Serbian war crimes trials as a journalist for local and international media.]

This April, a modest courtroom in Belgrade, Serbia, offered a lens into the global debate on justice for atrocity crimes. The case dealt with mass killings in Kosovo committed 25 years ago but the topic has relevance for Sudan, Ukraine, Israel/Palestine and other conflicts today.

In the dimly lit chamber, behind bullet-proof glass, sat nine former Yugoslav soldiers, now with gray hair and balding heads. They listened passively while the judge sentenced them in a monotone voice to prison for atrocities they had committed in Kosovo. In one village, they put groups of men into three separate houses and gunned them down, before setting the houses on fire. In a nearby village, they gathered men in the square, shot them and dumped their bodies in mass graves. Over two days, around 120 ethnic Albanian civilians were killed and thousands expelled.

The unit commander received a 20-year sentence and six of his subordinates got from 2 to 13 years. The other two were acquitted.

Watching from the gallery, we felt a momentary sense of relief. We had covered these crimes in depth, as a human rights investigator and journalist, and the sense of closure felt gratifying. But the process had taken exceedingly long and survivors stopped taking part. The sentences are lenient and the men can appeal.

We also know the verdict’s wider context. All of the convicted men were small fish – low-level soldiers who committed hideous acts in four Kosovo villages in Spring 1999. The Serbian government has refused to pursue higher level commanders who ordered or at least tolerated the atrocities in those villages and in so many others across Kosovo in a coordinated campaign.

The Kosovo war atrocities are among the best documented in contemporary conflicts. Across the province, Yugoslav Army forces typically surrounded a village and then entered with the police, looting and burning civilian property. They regularly killed civilian men – not fighters for the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army – and, in some cases, women and children, too. In numerous cases, they committed rape and sexual assault.

To hide their crimes, the Serbian interior ministry launched an operation at the war’s end to transfer at least 1,000 bodies of killed ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to Serbia, dumping them in police training centers and other still unknown places.

The post-war period saw war crimes trials for men at the very top. The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) tried then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and six other senior officials for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kosovo. Milosevic died during trial and five of the six got convicted. All but two have now been released after serving two-thirds of their sentences.

Between those top-level officials and the foot soldiers in that Belgrade courtroom this April, impunity prevails.     

Since establishing a local war crimes chamber in the early 2000s, Serbian courts have heard less than 20 cases related to the Kosovo war – a paltry number considering that Serbian and Yugoslav forces killed 10,000 people and expelled 800,000 in three months of 1999 alone. Over the past decade, the war crimes court did not launch a single new case involving abuses by Serbian forces in Kosovo. 

The impunity is no surprise given Serbian President Aleksander Vucic’s ongoing rejection of wrongdoing in Kosovo, Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. The men convicted by the ICTY for Kosovo atrocities and now released are hailed as heroes in Serbia.  This May, Vucic traveled to New York in an effort to defeat a UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica (the resolution passed).

The still unresolved issue of Kosovo’s status, now recognized by more than 110 states, forms a core part of Vucic’s political rhetoric and campaigns: never cede this holy land.

More unexpected is the muted calls for justice from the European Union, United States and other members of the NATO alliance, which launched 78 days of air attacks on Serbia in 1999, ostensibly to prevent atrocities in Kosovo. Speaking from the Oval Office that March to announce the campaign, President Bill Clinton stressed the “moral imperative” to stop the abuse.

A quarter century later, Kosovo’s status remains unsettled and relations with Belgrade are fraught. The EU and US are trying to mediate but the moral arguments on atrocities frequently get dropped.

Neither the US nor any European state sent observers to the Belgrade court in April or commented on the outcome, although war crimes trials and justice more broadly form core parts of Serbia’s accession talks with the European Union.

On the other side, the EU and US are backing a special court based in The Hague that is trying former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders for wartime and post-war abuse.

Serbia’s geographic and political position between East and West plays a role. President Vucic, a minister in Milosevic’s war-time government, has deftly treaded a line between the US and EU on one side and Russia and China on the other. In this tug-of-war, Western powers overlook past atrocities for strategic gains.

This approach carries multiple risks. First, more than 1,600 people remain missing from the Kosovo war, about two-thirds of them Albanians and one-third Roma and Serbs. It’s difficult to secure a lasting peace to the ongoing dispute over Kosovo’s status without resolving their fate. Serbia and Kosovo signed a joint declaration on missing persons in 2023, but there has been little progress ever since. The last time human remains from the Kosovo war were found was in 2020 when authorities discovered a new mass grave site in the south of Serbia.

Second, the impunity in Serbia protects a coterie of convicted and alleged war criminals, some of whom remain active in public and political life. They promote falsehoods about the war, encourage denial of atrocities, and harm efforts at reconciliation. Some of those who apparently committed atrocities still work in Serbia’s governing institutions, the army and the police. They obstruct judicial processes and intimidate witnesses.

Further, the “let bygones” policy puts pragmatism over principle in ways that help Serbia to violate international law; namely, the obligation to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and to hold those responsible to account.

What is at stake ultimately is EU and US credibility, already under strain for relative silence on war crimes in Sudan and Gaza while condemning them forcefully in Ukraine. The tenets of justice and human rights seem like slogans to wield at will.

To stay consistent, the US and European states should press Serbia to help resolve the fate of missing persons, as Vucic has pledged to do. This includes disclosing the locations of the roughly 1,000 human remains that Serbian forces transferred from Kosovo to Serbia. Albania and Kosovo can reciprocate by helping to locate the 500 bodies of Serbs, Roma and other non-Albanians believed to be on their territories.

The European Union should hold firm on its justice requirements for accession, and the US can draw closer to Serbia based on the principles of democracy, justice, and rule of law. The EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia should move the need for war crimes accountability higher up the priority list.

Finding ways for Serbian and Kosovo judicial bodies to cooperate forms an essential part. The UN and EU missions in Kosovo used to assist the exchange of war crimes evidence and information but this stopped as their mandates shrank. At present, the few war crimes trials taking place are marred by delays, poor victim participation and questionable fair trial standards. In-absentia trials have become more common as both sides block access to victims and alleged perpetrators from their respective communities.

The NATO campaign in Yugoslavia, called a humanitarian intervention to prevent suffering, came to an end 25 years ago this week. Now the US and European states should work to ensure that those who ordered the suffering are held to account. That would constitute a humanitarian intervention that promotes democratic values in the Balkans and civilian protection worldwide.

PHOTO: A grave marked “Unidentified” in western Kosovo, 1999. © Fred Abrahams/Human Rights Watch.

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