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War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska
War Criminals in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
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

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.