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Interview: Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia

How and why have i been invited to testify

Tamara Nikčević

November 21, 2013 | Vreme

These days Belgrade tabloids have once again issued warrants for Chairman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia Sonja Biserko. This time, claim reliable sources from “official circles,” because she could bear witness for Croatia before the International Court of Justice following Croatia’s charges against Serbia for genocide. How come the media got information as such? Who gave it to them? After all, will Sonja Biserko really take the stand in The Hague?

“True, Croatia has invited me to take the stand in a possible genocide trial of Serbia. I don’t see why this should be problematic,” says Sonja Biserko. “What is really problematic in my view is the state’s attitude towards citizens who have been invited over past years to testify in the trials to Serb officials before an international court. Just remember what witnesses against Slobodan Milošević or Vojislav Šešelj had gone through; or Milan Babić’s family that has been under constant pressure. Unfortunately, we all know how this ended.”


VREME: The same as we know how witnesses against some other persons such as, say, Ramush Haradinaj, ended up.

SONJA BISERKO: Yes, that’s true… Such treatment of witnesses is not characteristic just of the Balkans or ex-Yugoslavia; there are similar cases all over the world, especially in the trials of the Mafia or war criminals. This is why – as a measure of precaution – identities of witnesses are kept secret until a trial opens.


How would you say the information about you leaked?

Given that both parties to the dispute – Serbia and Croatia – submitted lists of their witnesses to the court, I would say the highest officials were those who leaked the information. Namely, having seen my name on the witness list someone from Serbia’s team of lawyers passed the information to the top leadership and they revealed it to the media. Well, since one cannot tell for sure who actually rules this country considering the chaotic situation of the society and the hookup between the police, secret services and extreme radical groups, it’s obvious that the plan behind revealing my name as a witness for Croatia in a genocide trial to Serbia was to keep me under pressure, and expose to maltreatment and intimidation…


Are you afraid?

Although this is not the first time I’ve been subject to campaigns of intimidation meant to force me out of the country or the like, I must admit I do not feel exactly at ease; the more so since my consent to take the stand in the trial is treated as an act of treason. People seem to forget what kind of war it was; they forget the tanks heading for Vukovar, the flowers Belgraders were showering them with; they forget that Vukovar was razed to the ground later on. All this is being neglected, actually swept under the carpet just to prove that Serbia had not been in war. Regretfully, some developments have been playing into the hands of this thesis.


You mean some verdicts ruled in ICTY?

Sure. The sad fact is that no one from Serbia has been accused of the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. As you know, Slobodan Milošević died before the end of his trial. Hence anyone trying in any way to remind citizens of the developments in ex-Yugoslavia in 1990s is proclaimed “the enemy of the people,” “the hater” or “the traitor.” And all this notwithstanding 400,000 veterans that are treated as an almost missing group in order to deny Serbia’s responsibility for the wars in 1990s. Where have all those people taken the field? On whose territory?

Finally, I must say there is a difference between campaigns against me staged at the time of Slobodan Milošević, Vojislav Koštunica and today.


What difference?

Well, people who waged the war, people responsible for it are in power today. Head of state Tomislav Nikolić himself was on the battlefield, Aleksandar Vučić fought as a volunteer in the siege of Sarajevo; the leader of his former party, Vojislav Šešelj, is standing trial in The Hague…In my view, the protagonists of historic developments, the protagonists of Serbia’s dire straits of today, should explain how come they changed their beliefs and policy. Should they do that people would support them more and understand them better. But as things stand now, they have reason enough to obstruct public argumentation and testimony by anyone reminding citizens of their past doings. This is why this regime is by far more oppressive in its pressure on people. And the Serbian society in ruins, Serbia’s non-existent institutions, all this makes it easier for the regime…


Have the institutions ever been in a better state over here?

You are right: they have never been in a much better state than they are now. And yet, it seems to me that the international community, once it placed Kosovo on its priority agenda, is less focused on the situation in Serbia. And this regime, naturally, makes good use of it.


What do you mean?

I am saying that the West has obviously reached some kind of agreement with the structure in power: the later shall give up the partition scenario for Kosovo and, in return, the West shall be turning a blind eye to Serbia’s domestic policies for a while, development of institutions included. Luckily, the agreement is provisional.


How provisional?

The political context will change once Serbia obtains the date for the beginning of accession negotiations with EU: Europe will be finally controlling the functioning of Serbia’s institutions.

By the way, the Democratic Party is most responsible for this crying paradox of today’s Serbia: people with such track records are taking the country towards EU! Everything would have been different had the Democratic Party had more mature leaders and taken stock of the wars of 1990s, the stock Serbia will have to take sooner or later. As it is, Serbia continued the war by other means after October 5, 2000. Serbia has been obstructing consolidation of the states emerging from ex-Yugoslavia – primarily of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. All these countries have to cope with this problem or that with Serbia.


They still do?

Of course they do. True, there is a truce of a kind now, with Montenegro for instance. But this means not that /Serbia/ no longer tries to undermine these countries’ movement towards EU or NATO. In this context, it is after compromising leaders of these countries and destabilizing their domestic situations, it attempts to exert all sorts of pressure on them and the like. This is a comprehensive strategy on which – I regret to say – Serbia still wastes most of its energy.

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia has published numbers of books on this /strategy/ and the developments in the territory of ex-Yugoslavia in the past two decades; it has collected large documentation and produced documentaries on the issue. The Helsinki Committee has been widely circulating its findings – domestically, in the region and internationally. And this is yet another reason why this regime picks on me: as it seems, it takes we are the organization with considerable international influence.


Are you? How much in demand are your reports?

People do read them since they provide precise and accurate analyses based on factual information. And it goes without saying that the influence - this regime refers to and is evidently afraid of – is by far smaller than the Helsinki Committee’s and mine actual influence. But this influence is deliberately mystified and interpreted as such.

I would, if you don’t mind, revert to the international community’s role in and its influence on the developments in the Western Balkans. I think the problem is in the West’s frequent “sweet-talk” policy for Serbia. And there are two reasons for it: first, Serbia is the biggest country in the Balkans and, second, as such Serbia has to be calmed down this way or another and pushed into a dialogue with EU. And Serbia has made the best of it considering its decades-old and well functioning diplomatic and intelligence mechanisms. I regret to say that the international community’s attitude as such is detrimental to Serbia in the long run.


In what sense?

With all this wheeling and dealing and under-the-counter bargains and trades Serbia has actually neglected itself, its real-life problems.

If we take a look at, say, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia – the institution I truly do appreciate – we shall realize that neither this court has developed mechanisms that would make Serbia, as well as other ex-Yugoslav republics, take into consideration its verdicts and evidence – these have been usually ignored instead; at the same time the Tribunal was anathemized and named “anti-Serb”…And that was the case in any country emerging from ex-Yugoslavia.

I think the failure to develop a serious strategy for the region was also a big mistake the West made; and then, following this “example,” all ex-Yugoslav republics gave no thought to a strategy for the region. EU has been focused on human rights, institutions and corruption instead: the corruption that cannot be eradicated without solid economic foundation.


The Ivica Dačić cabinet has placed the struggle against corruption at its priority agenda. What came out of it?

I would say it was more of a media campaign canvassing for Aleksandar Vučič as the only one who against all odds – risking even his own life – seriously copes with pressing problems of this society. But a year and a half later everything boiled down to a farce, a non-stop election campaign meant to raise Vučić and his party to the only position the First Vice-Premier earns for: of a new, unquestionable leader of the Serb nation. This is why the whole story sounds so phony, tragicomic…I would say citizens are becoming aware that Vučić’s anti-corruption campaign is a dead loss: nothing but a personality cult campaign.


Why a dead loss? Some people were arrested, they stand trial…

So what? What’s the outcome? Have we had an epilogue to any of these cases? We have not. Corruption still thrives instead, which testifies that this government is up to its ears in it like all the previous ones. And so instead of promised epilogues we have new promises, pledges and arrests in tabloids – on Fridays usually. In a word, what we have is populism that channels people’s justified dissatisfaction towards targeted individuals or groups; in this specific case, towards the Democratic Party that, unfortunately, itself opened to question some moves by its presumptuous officials. And yet it would be tragic should the Democratic Party – even such as it is now – disappear since you cannot have a normal political life with a single party dominating the scene.


There is something I have to ask you: what do you, being in the membership of the Political Council of the Liberal Democratic Party, think of the party’s initial decision to accept the invitation to the Provisional Council of the City of Belgrade?

I am glad that things have changed in the meantime…


Things have changed because, as Čedomir Jovanović put it, it was the Democratic Party that “poisoned the atmosphere and behaved irresponsibly.” Otherwise one thousand flowers would have bloomed I guess…Everything considered, does this hint at a closer cooperation between the Liberal Democratic Party and the Serb Progressive Party?

I do not know the answer to this question. You can see for yourself how fluid our political scene is. Alliances are made overnight, literally. Boris Tadić, say, tells one story and Dragan Đilas quite a different one; Even the Democrats could end up in an alliance with the Progressists, who knows…Anyway, this not the way I scrutinize our political scene.


In what way do you scrutinize it?

I am trying to get to the bottom of it. And I regret to say that the situation if extremely bad: freedom of expression of under the reign of terror; not only the recent history but also the history of the entire 20th century is being revised and historical facts distorted, while hardly anyone raises a voice against it. And for all this we have to thank our immature, selfish and rather incapable political elites.

Speaking of the Liberal Democratic Party I have supported and still stand for its policy although I am not in its membership. I believe it managed against all odds to put across some messages to this society. After all, the stands Čedomir Jovanović and the Liberal Democratic Party have advocated for years today make Serbia’s policy, formally at least. Of course, there is still no telling what will come out of it.


And when Croatia invited you to witness for it in the charge for genocide it pressed against Serbia…

First of all, this is about charges everyone expected the two countries would withdraw in the end…


Is there still a chance for something like this?

I would say there is always a chance. Withdrawal of charges would indicate that our politicians and societies have matured, that would be a step toward serious regional cooperation. Because, as things stand now, we are still glaring at one another.

By the way, Croatia had three preconditions for withdrawal of its charge against Serbia: solution to the problem of missing persons, non-impunity for war crimes and defining the border line at the Danube. Serbia’s leadership turned this down. What I am saying is that Serbia constantly obstructs the negotiations on these issues


But hasn’t Premier Ivica Dačič himself recently appealed to Croatia for the settlement of genocide charges?

Yes, he did. But Croatia still waits for the answer to its demands. Once they are answered positively the charges will certainly be withdrawn. It would be nice, therefore, should President Nikolić, Premier Dačić and his deputy, Aleksandar Vučić, finally tell the public what Croatia’s preconditions are about. This is the more so important since both Serbia and Croatia are aware how costly the trial would be. On the one hand it could easily turn into yet another prolonged agony; on the other, it could be useful as it would lift the veil from the developments in 1990s.


This is what Croatia’s President Ivo Josipović also said during his recent visit to Belgrade.

Many things have already been disclosed in ICTY trials. Let me remind you that, say, Milan Babić, in his capacity as the witness for the prosecution, revealed key facts that speak about the character of the war /in Croatia/, the manner in which it had been prepared, financed, and how one-third of Croatia’s territory had been occupied…Besides, when taken into custody for fraud in 2002 Slobodan Milošević said that all money flows could not have been made public because with these funds Serbia had financed the wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.


In what sense could this trial harm Croatia?

Probably by opening the question of Croatia’s war crimes against Serbs committed in the course of the Homeland War.


You mean in August 1995?

Yes, I am referring to this as well. But that was not about ethnic cleansing…


Was not?

No, it was not. And that’s the most problematic part…The Serbian side takes that what happened in the aftermath of the Storm operation – those six hundred old people – could be qualified as ethnic cleansing. But that was an organized exodus with Belgrade in a leading role.

On the other hand, should the trial take place at all, that would be an opportunity for citizens of this country to learn that in 1990s Serbia started aggressive wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina; that would once for all define the character of the wars waged in the ex-Yugoslav territory. And this is the crucial fact that is being ignored over here.


When you know how the ICJ ruled in the case Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Serbia, what’s the purpose of these charges after all? Would you say that the developments in the territory of Croatia could be labeled genocide on any ground?

I would refrain from saying my opinion about this – this is something I wish not to comment on. But speaking of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s charge one must not forget that the court decided that – as Žarko Puhovski ironically put it – a “municipal genocide” had been committed in Bosnia, in Srebrenica. On the other hand, Radovan Karadžić is standing trial not only for Srebrenica but also other places in Bosnia-Herzegovina where Serb forces have committed genocide.

The ICJ decided that there was not evidence enough to support genocide. And the evidence was insufficient because Serbia had blotted out some documents that could have been used as evidence on the one hand, and because of certain EU member-states attitude towards genocide. Nevertheless the ruling was that Serbia did nothing to prevent the Srebrenica genocide; and that’s a terrible accusation. Besides, ICTY verdicts to some high officials of Republika Srpska testify of the way in which Serbia supported the Bosnian war: how it provided trucks, arms, moneys, logistics… Anyway genocide cannot be committed without the support from a state and its apparatus.


But how come that Croatia invited you to testify in this process?

I’ve not asked for it, that’s for sure…You know, each of the parties in legal proceedings tries to secure witnesses for it; and so they found me. They probably know that the Helsinki Committee has concerned itself with Croatia; numbers of Serb refugees from Croatia were turning to us at the time and we were trying to help them; the Helsinki Committee’s reports were based on their testimonies, the available documentation, study and, most importantly, on its understanding of Yugoslavia.


What do you mean by understanding of Yugoslavia?

The Helsinki Committee and I have been concerning ourselves with ex-Yugoslavia’s disintegration for long; deeply involved in the issue, we’ve been analyzing it carefully. Before the war broke up I was working for the Yugoslav Secretariat of Foreign Affairs and, by the very nature of my job, I was informed about the developments in Yugoslavia. In this context, let me remind you that The Hague Conference in 1991 was Yugoslavia’s last chance to safeguard its integrity. Having already won over the YPA and defined its goals, Serbia refused to take this chance. It justified this by claiming, “Serbs are not a minority community,” although all minorities, Albanian included, have already obtained “special statuses.” Serbia’s leadership of the time obviously thought it could get all it planned to. But their assessment was wrong – to this very day we witness how much it cost Serbia; especially Serbs in Croatia who had been hostages to Belgrade’s policy.

And speaking of SFRY’s problem as an complex community, the war and the crimes committed, I must say that what is crucial in my view is a person’s attitude towards the processes that person was a contemporary of.


What attitude have you taken?

I am trying to find the truth, no matter what it costs…Contrary to all those interpretations and manipulations, I’ve never took sides /in my search/, sided with one side and against the other; that’s never been the case.


What was then?

I’ve concerned myself with human rights as someone to whom a person’s belonging to any single ethnic group – Serb, Croat or Bosniak – means little. Simply, this is not the way I am, feel or think. And I live and work accordingly. This is why I carefully observe processes, take notes, analyze…At present I am in the membership of the international mission that monitors human rights violations in North Korea. Can you tell the side I’ve sided with here? What side do I favor? What side do I frown on?

You can see for yourself how senseless all these allegations are.



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