War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska
War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 103 / Europe & Central Asia

War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska

Five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to almost four years of bloody war in Bosnia, many of those believed to have carried out some of the war’s worst atrocities remain at large.

Executive Summary

Five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought an end to almost four years of bloody war in Bosnia, many of those believed to have carried out some of the war’s worst atrocities remain at large. The continued presence in the municipalities of Republika Srpska (RS) of individuals suspected of war crimes—some indicated either publicly or secretly by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)—represents a significant obstacle to the return of ethnic minority refugees.  It also undermines seriously Bosnia's chances for building central institutions, generating self-sustainable economic growth, and achieving the political transformation necessary to begin the process of integration with the rest of Europe.  Moreover, the continued commitment of most war crimes suspects to the goal of a Greater Serbia, and their willingness to use violence to achieve it, could—in the long term—provoke renewed conflict in Bosnia and continued instability in the Balkans.

In many RS municipalities, individuals alleged to have committed violations of international humanitarian law during the 1992-1995 war—mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and mass rape—remain in positions of power.  They continue to work in the police force, hold public office, exercise power through the legal and illegal economy, or influence politics from behind the scenes.  In eastern Republika Srpska in particular, many of these “small fish,” who served in the local Serb wartime administrations and military units that carried out the policies of ethnic cleansing, remain a frightening force, often actively working to prevent refugee return and moves towards ethnic reconciliation.

2000 has seen a number of organised violent incidents directed against returning refugees (and in one case against the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR)) in Zvornik, Bratunac, Srebrenica and Janje.  The systematic armed attacks on Bosniak returnees and their property—particularly in Janje and Srebrenica—demonstrate the continued presence of paramilitary groups in the region, whose aim is to maintain instability and discourage refugee return.  Many of those involved in wartime ethnic cleansing have links with these groups, as well as with military and paramilitary elements in Serbia proper.  SFOR's reluctance to give priority to making arrests has played a major role in slowing implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, and has needlessly prolonged the international community presence.

Following the April 2000 Bosnian municipal elections, a number of individuals with questionable war records assumed positions as municipal assembly members, speakers and mayors.  At least four of the recently elected Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) assembly members have already been referred to local authorities for arrest and trial under the "Rules of the Road" established by the ICTY in The Hague.  In one of the worst municipalities, Bratunac, seven of the thirteen recently elected Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) candidates are allegedly connected with war crimes. This municipality continues to represent a centre for Serb radical national politics in the region, a fact demonstrated vividly during a violent May 2000 attack on a bus convoy of Bosniak women.

This report names individuals in eighteen Republika Srpska municipalities and the Brcko District who are alleged to have committed indictable acts or supervised those who did so, and are therefore potentially indictable for war crimes under the criteria established by the ICTY.  Yet they continue to play a prominent role in their respective areas, and present significant barriers to the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords.  Senior international officials know about them.  Many meet frequently with international officials and representatives of SFOR.

The influence of potential war criminals at the municipal and entity level is an open secret among international officials.  The issue is often avoided, since it exposes contradictions between the international community’s commitment to justice and the rule of law, on the one hand, and the temptations of political expediency, on the other.  And yet the persistence of radical politics in eastern RS follows logically from the fact that the international community permitted the SDS of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic to participate in post-Dayton “democratic” elections.  As one mayor in RS noted, “the SDS as a party protects war criminals because to do otherwise would call its entire concept into question.”[fn]ICG interview with a mayor of an RS municipality who asked to remain anonymous, June 2000.Hide Footnote  More significantly, the failure to arrest Karadzic himself has sent a message to his wartime colleagues and political successors that they can obstruct return, actively work against Dayton implementation, exploit nationalist sentiments, and remain untouchable.

While acknowledging the moral imperative to apprehend war criminals, some policymakers have disputed the practical urgency of the issue, arguing that war criminals play a marginal role in local politics.  This report shows this assumption to be flawed.  In addition to the numerous individuals discussed below, Karadzic himself continues to operate behind the scenes, taking part in the day to day running of the SDS.  The continued anti-Dayton activities of the SDS, as well as Karadzic’s continued leadership role, argue for excluding the party from participation in Bosnian political life. If this is impracticable to achieve in the short remaining time before the 11 November elections, the possible banning of the party should remain actively on the international authorities’ agenda with benchmark performance tests being set and enforced.

The continued freedom and influence of many individuals alleged to have been involved in war crimes has a debilitating influence on the prospects for long term peace and stability in Bosnia.  Bosnia will never achieve the rule of law and inter-ethnic reconciliation until many more suspected war criminals appear before the ICTY or locally authorised courts.  Only then will the local debate on war crimes pass from a debate about evils committed by ethnic groups to a debate on evils committed by individuals.

Unfortunately, the ICTY lacks the resources to even begin to fully carry out its mandate. The overall number of indictments—both public and secret—remains disturbingly low: measured in tens rather than hundreds.  A number of war crimes cases have already been referred by The Hague to local courts and more can be expected, but these cases have simply shown up the inability of the Bosnian justice system, as presently constituted, to handle war crimes cases. The report makes a number of recommendations designed to give the ICTY the support it needs both to do its intended job and to make an impact on the general public—both in Bosnia and throughout the former Yugoslavia.

The report also sets out a number of other measures the international community can undertake to improve the situation, with little risk or additional expenditure. Much of what is needed is simply a rationalisation of existing international community efforts, with the primary focus on increased efficiency within the scope of existing mandates and resources.

This report does not purport to be a comprehensive list of those who allegedly committed war crimes in RS; nor is there any suggestion that war crimes were committed only in RS, or only by Serbs and not Croats and Bosniaks (i.e. Muslims). But it is a particular matter of concern that Bosnian Serb authorities—in contrast to those of other ethnic groups—have yet to arrest a single Serb war crimes suspect, and have extended only minimal co-operation to the ICTY. The continued presence in positions of some prominence of so many people suspected of grave crimes remains a major obstacle to peace building.

If the report leads to more effective international action against not only alleged Serb war criminals, but those of other ethnic groups as well, Bosnia can only benefit. Only with the disappearance from public and political life, by one means or another, of the forces of extreme nationalism still determined to tear the country apart at the seams, will the country and its people fully emerge from the horror of the last decade.

Sarajevo/Washington/Brussels, 2 November 2000

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



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For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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