'Pulling Rotten Teeth'
Ashdown gives Bosnian Serb authorities six months to own up to Srebrenica, and warns his patience is slipping. 20 October 2003
SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina--High Representative to Bosnia Paddy Ashdown warned Bosnian Serb authorities on 15 October that they will face grave consequences if they fail to reveal within six months what happened to thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, whose bodies have remained missing since the 1995 massacre.
The warning came after authorities in the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska gave the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber its second official report on Srebrenica in late September.
As with their first report, Republika Srpska failed to admit that there was in fact a massacre and failed to provide precise details as to the whereabouts of the bodies of some 3,000 victims.
“It is simply unacceptable that getting the truth from the [Bosnian Serb] government is like extracting rotten teeth,” Ashdown said during a 15 October press conference.
Bosnian Serb Army forces took control of Srebrenica in July 1995 and murdered some 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys. About 5,000 of those victims have so far been uncovered in mass graves, some of them identified and properly buried in the Potocari Memorial center near Srebrenica.
In September 2002, Republika Srpska authorities turned in their first official report on the Srebrenica tragedy, claiming that the massacre was imaginary. The report claimed that no more than 2,000 Bosniaks were killed, all of them armed soldiers. It said that 1,600 of those victims were killed in battle, 100 died from “exhaustion,” and around 200 were murdered by Bosnian Serb soldiers who “were not aware” of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.
The victims’ families took their case to the Human Rights Chamber, suing the Bosnian Serb authorities for compensation and demanding the truth about the fate of their loved ones, as well as an admittance of responsibility. In March, the Chamber ordered authorities in Republika Srpska to pay $2.5 million to a foundation dedicated to the victims of the Srebrenica massacre.
The Chamber also ordered that authorities respond to the families’ demands in another official report by September this year. The report was to contain detailed information about the location of mass graves and those authorities who were responsible. It failed on all counts.
Though the new report has not yet been released to the public, some officials who read the report, including Ashdown, say that while its attitude is improved, its content is not.
Ashdown said that though the report offered a “marked change of tone”--compared to the previous one, which he called “a disgraceful whitewash”--it does not represent a “change in substance.”
Republika Srpska Parliamentary Vice President Sefket Hafizovic, a Bosniak who was a former mayor of Srebrenica, said that the report represents a significant change in attitude. For the first time, says Hafizovic, the government of Republika Srpska is admitting that the Bosnian Serb Army, police, politicians, and citizens were responsible for some “crimes” in Srebrenica.
“Also, for the first time, they are mentioning names like Ratko Mladic, [wartime] commander of the Bosnian Serb Army,” said Hafizovic on 18 September. “But it is a shame that they still claim there was no massacre in Srebrenica.”
Amor Masovic, president of the Bosnian Federation Commission for Missing Persons, told local media that the Republika Srpska government had achieved some progress with the new report and that it “clearly and precisely determined that crimes were committed by members of the army of Bosnian Serbs, police, civil authorities, municipal commissioners, and the local population.”
Speaking at a 16 October press conference, Zinaida Delic, spokesperson for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) mission in Bosnia, also agreed that “there is some progress in Republika Srpska authorities admitting crimes in Srebrenica, but still they have to face much more serious facts.”
PASSING THE BUCK
One feature of the new report that was welcomed by Ashdown was its recommendation to form an independent commission charged with investigating the Srebrenica tragedy and issuing its own report.
According to the report, such a commission would include representatives of Republika Srpska, the surviving family members from Srebrenica, and the international community, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Within six months, the report says, such a commission could present detailed information about the location of the murder and burial of the 3,000 victims still not found.
Ashdown said the report’s recommendation would save Republika Srpska’s credibility at this crucial moment. He called on all government institutions in Republika Srpska to fully cooperate with the commission. Ashdown warned that if they don’t cooperate, “that would be a matter of the gravest legal consequences which would require firm and immediate action.”
The High Representative also sent out a few warning messages to potential obstructers.
“In the case that any evidence is destroyed, or any other type of obstruction interferes with the commission’s work, I will find those institutions and their leaders responsible,” Ashdown said on 15 October.
Ashdown also suggested that Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic, a high-ranking official in the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), head up the commission--an idea Cavic rejected.
Cavic, however, is not likely to skirt the High Representative’s authority, however. On 16 October, he received a clear message from Ashdown’s office, promising that he would be held personally responsible for any obstruction or destruction of evidence during the course of the commission’s work.
As the High Representative, Ashdown has the authority to impose laws and to remove government officials--even presidents.
Non-governmental organizations from Srebrenica, however, are not impressed with the report’s commission recommendation. They said, however, that they were not surprised there was no admission of guilt.
Hajra Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica organization, believes that Bosnian Serb authorities will never admit to genocide.
“As long as war criminals and close friends of [wartime Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal] Radovan Karadzic are in the government and parliament, we will never get information about our loved ones,” Subasic said on 18 October.
Parlimentary Vice President Hafizovic believes that Republika Srpska’s initiative to form the independent commission is a way to let someone else reveal to the public what happened in Srebrenica, rather than admit to it themselves.
He said that even if Bosnian Serb authorities were ready to admit to the massacre, its electorate is likely not ready to accept it.
“For the sake of their voters, it would be easier for them if the facts about the massacre are presented by a commission. Otherwise, they would lose a lot of votes,” said Hafizovic.
--by Anes Alic
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