WORLD REPORT 1999 - Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Human Rights Developments

The government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), led by President Slobodan Milosevic, continued its blatant disregard for human rights in 1998. Police and army actions in Kosovo involved grave breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law. Milosevic also took steps against the independent Serbian-language media and the autonomy of Serbia’s universities, and failed to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

By far the most serious violations occurred in the southwestern province of Kosovo, inhabited predominantly by ethnic Albanians who seek independence. After years of peaceful resistance to Yugoslav government repression, some ethnic Albanians formed an armed resistance against the state, known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), or Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves (UCK) in Albanian. By early 1998, the KLA had taken credit for a series of attacks on policemen and ethnic Albanians it considered collaborators with the government.

The first government atrocities took place in late February and early March when special police forces attacked three villages in the Drenica region, known for its KLA presence, with artillery, helicopters, and armored vehicles. At least eighty-eight peoplewere killed, twenty-four of them women and children. Although it is unclear to what extent the KLA was offering resistance, the evidence strongly suggests that at least seventeen people were executed after they had been detained or surrendered.

The police attack in Drenica was a watershed in the Kosovo conflict; thousands of outraged Albanians who had been committed to the nonviolent politics of their political leader Ibrahim Rugova decided to join the KLA. In the ensuing months, the KLA took control of an estimated 40 percent of Kosovo’s territory.

The government began a large-scale offensive against the KLA in mid-May, a few days after Milosevic agreed to U.S. demands that he meet with Rugova. The special police together with the Yugoslav Army attacked a string of towns and villages along the border with Albania in the west, with the specific intent of depopulating the region. Until then, the KLA had been receiving arms and fresh recruits from across the border.

Many villages from Pec in the north to Dakovica in the south were shelled while civilians were still present. Noncombatants who fled the attacks were sometimes fired on by snipers, and a still undetermined number of people were taken into detention. In three cases, helicopters marked with the Red Cross emblem reportedly fired on civilians. Landmines were placed in strategic points along the border, as well as along the southern border with Macedonia. Most villages in the region were systematically destroyed, and farmers’ livestock was shot, to ensure that no one could return in the short-run. Fifteen thousand people fled to Albania, and an estimated 30,000 went north to Montenegro.

The KLA’s first major offensive began on July 19 when it attempted to capture the town of Orahovac. The offensive failed and the police recaptured the town two days later. In the fighting at least forty-two people were killed. Witnesses reported summary executions and the use of human shields by the police. Foreign journalists received reports of mass graves, although these reports were not confirmed.

The government forces intensified their offensive throughout July and August, despite promises from Milosevic that it had stopped. By mid-August, the government had retaken much of the territory that had been held by the KLA, including their stronghold of Malisevo. Unable to protect the civilian population, the KLA retreated into Drenica and some pockets in the West.

Some of the worst atrocitiesto date occurred in late September, as the government’s offensive was coming to an end. On September 26, eighteen members of an extended family, mostly women, children, and elderly, were killed near the village of Donje Obrinje by men believed to be with the Serbian special police. Many of the victims had been shot in the head and showed signs of bodily mutilation. On the same day, thirteen ethnic Albanian men were executed in the nearby village of Golubovac by government forces. One man survived and was subsequently taken out of the country by the international agencies in Kosovo.

The government offensive was an apparent attempt to crush civilian support for the rebels. Government forces attacked civilians, systematically destroyed towns, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes. One attack in August near Senik killed seventeen civilians who were hiding in the woods. The police were seen looting homes, destroying already abandoned villages, burning crops, and killing farm animals.

The majority of those killed and injured were civilians. At least 300,000 people were displaced, many of them women and children now living without shelter in the mountains and woods. In October, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified an estimated 35,000 of the displaced as particularly at risk of exposure to the elements. Most were too afraid to return to their homes due to the continued police presence.

At least one hundred ethnic Albanians “disappeared” in Kosovo between February and September 1998, about half of whom were last seen in the custody of the police. The precise number was impossible to determine since the Yugoslav authorities did not make public the number of people they had in detention. Some of the “disappeared” may have been in prison, others were possibly dead. Others unaccounted for in the conflict may have gone into hiding, fled Kosovo, or joined the KLA.

As of October 4, 1,242 ethnic Albanians had been charged with “terrorist acts,” according to the government, although only 684 of these people were in custody. Detained individuals included human rights activists, humanitarian aid workers, political party members, doctors, and lawyers, many of whom were physically abused. The use of torture against detainees was widespread, and five people were known to have died from abuse in prison during the year.

The government restricted the ability of humanitarian aid agencies to treat the internally displaced. On various occasions, the police blocked access to needy populations, confiscated supplies, and harassed and even attacked humanitarian aid workers. Three humanitarian aid workers were killed by mortar fire while trying to deliver food near Kijevo on August 24. The government justified the restricted access by claiming that some humanitarian organizations had distributed supplies, including arms, to the KLA.

The KLA also committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the taking of hostages and extrajudicialexecutions. At least one hundred ethnic Serbs, and a number of ethnic Albanians and Roma, were missing in circumstances in which KLA involvement was suspected: at least thirty-nine of them were last seen in KLA custody. In some villages the KLA tried to drive ethnic Serbs from their homes. In some cases, elderly Serbs stayed behind, either too old to flee or unwilling to abandon their homes. Some of these people were missing and feared dead. Four Serbian journalists were known to have been detained by the KLA.

On September 9, the police reported the discovery of bodies they claimed had been killed by the KLA in Lake Radonjic near Glodjane. By September 16, they had gathered thirty-four bodies, eleven of whom were identified, including some ethnic Albanians. At the end of August, the police claimed to have discovered the human remains of twenty-two people and a kiln used by the KLA to cremate the bodies in the village of Klecka. The manner in which the allegations were made, however, raised serious questions and underlined the importance of an investigation by an impartial forensics team to investigate Klecka, as well as the other areas where summary executions were reported.

On September 11, the Montenegrin government decided to close the internal boundary between Montenegro and Kosovo to all persons seeking refuge from the armed conflict. Two days later, a group of 3,200 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, the majority of them women, children, and the elderly, were expelled to Albania by Montenegrin authorities.

The Yugoslav government restricted the work of domestic and foreign journalists who sought to report the atrocities in Kosovo. Some ethnic Albanian journalists were threatened, detained, or beaten by the police. Independent radio and television stations in the Albanian language continued to be denied licenses and, in one case, a station was closed down. The international media covering Kosovo also faced a number of restrictions, starting with the denial of visas to critical journalists whom the state considered “anti-Serb.” One journalist was declared persona non grata. A number of foreign journalists were beaten or fired upon by the police. Other minority groups in FRY also complained of discrimination, especially the Muslims in Sandzak and Hungarians in Vojvodina. Members of the country’s large Roma population, the poorest ethnic group in FRY, were occasionally subjected to violence by individuals, usually “skinheads,” as well as by the police. Roma in Kosovo were harassed and occasionally attacked by both ethnic Albanians and the police.

The country’s ethnic minorities were hardly the only victims of human rights abuses in 1998. Throughout the year, the Yugoslav government continued to take repressive measures against all citizens who challenged or criticized its authority, regardless of ethnicity. Police abuse against common criminals, as well as those publicly demonstrating against the government, remained a common occurrence. The court system was closely controlled by the state, providing little opportunity for a fair hearing or a remedy for abuses committed by the state.

On May 26, the Serbian parliament passed a new law, the University Act, which gave government authorities exclusive power to appoint rectors, faculty deans, and governing boards at all public universities. The new law also required that all faculty members sign new employment contracts, regardless of the terms and conditions of their existing contracts. After the adoption of the new law, rectors, deans, and members of governing boards at universities across Serbia were replaced with government appointees, many of them prominent members of the ruling political parties in Serbia. Protests against the new law were violently dispersed; and professors involved with opposition political parties or publicly opposed to the policies of President Milosevic were verbally attacked by the government.

Government attacks on the Serbian-language press picked up throughout 1998, especially towards the end of the year. The government maintained direct control of the state radio and television, which provided news for the majority of the population. State programs continued to glorify the government’s accomplishments, conceal its failures and, most importantly, manipulate the fears of the population. As was the case during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, the state-run radio and television purposefully spread disinformation about Kosovo and promoted images of “the enemy” intended to inflame the conflict.

Independent media faced serious restrictions, including the confiscation of radio equipment and arbitrary bans. On October 8, in response to the threat of NATO intervention, the Serbian government passed a Decree on Special Measures that allowed for the direct censorship of local and foreign media. The decree banned the broadcast of foreign news programs like the BBC, RFE, and VOA, and ordered local media not to disseminate material that was “against the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of the country.” On the basis of the decree, the police closed down two newspapers, Danas and Dnevni Telegraf, and confiscated their computers on October 13. The next day, the independent daily Naša Borba was also closed. Two radio stations, Radio Index and Radio Senta, were also shut down.

On October 20, the Serbian parliament adopted a new Law on Public Information that incorporated many of the restrictions from the special decree, notably a ban on foreign radio and television broadcasts that were “of a political-propaganda nature.” The law imposed exorbitantly high fines on those who breach the law. On October 23, the owner of Dnevni Telegraf and Evropljanin magazine, Slavko Curuvija, was charged with publicizing information “jeopardizing the territorial integrity and independence of the Republic of Serbia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” because of an open letter to Milosevic published by his magazine that strongly criticized the government. He and the magazines’s editor and publisher were found guilty and fined $230,000.

The least obvious but highly effective restriction on the media was the deliberate lack of a coherent legal framework for the establishment of private radio and television stations, which the government used to justify the denial of broadcast licenses. Without a license, stations could be summarily closed down, as happened to at least four stations in 1998.

Throughout 1998, the federal and Serbian authorities failed to cooperate fully with the ICTY. A number of prominent indictees remained on FRY territory during the year, and the government refused visas to some ICTY investigators who wished to conduct investigations in Kosovo, as well as U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues David Scheffer.

Defending Human Rights

A number of well-established local human rights organizations were active in documenting abuses in Yugoslavia and campaigning against them. The Humanitarian Law Center, with offices in Belgrade and Prishtina, Kosovo, and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia publicized violations against ethnic Albanians and Serbs alike, as well as against Roma. The Kosova Helsinki Committee and the Council for the Defense of Human Rights and Freedoms focused their work on violations in Kosovo; the latter produced a vast amount of material on abuses by the police. The Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) documented and publicized the ongoing problems faced by the independent media.

These organizations and others, such as the Center for Human Rights, the Belgrade Circle, and Women in Black, were generally allowed to function, although they were verbally threatened by the government, especially Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Šešelj, who also heads the Radical Party. A number of local activists with the council in Kosovo, however, were harassed, detained, arrested, and beaten. One of them, Rexhep Bislimi, died in police custody in July from beatings he sustained while in detention.

The Role of the International Community

Despite repeated promises not to “allow another Bosnia,” the international community failed to take adequate steps to stop the violence in Kosovo. The evidence suggests that the international community, afraid of the KLA’s rapid growth, may have given Milosevic a green light to proceed with a military offensive from July-September that involved serious breaches of humanitarian law.

On those occasions when the international community did condemn government abuses, words and symbolic actions proved meaningless, with deadlines postponed, conditions abandoned, and sanctions poorly enforced and even withdrawn, notwithstanding continued violence. Even less condemnation was directed towards Milosevic’s stifling of domestic dissent in the university and the media.

The Contact Group

Disunity was particularly evident among the members of the Contact Group dealing with developments in the Balkans—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia—where Russia in particular played the role of spoiler, although Russia’s resistance was at times used by Western states as an excuse for their own inaction, especially by those countries with business interests in the country. On March 9, in its first statement after the February 28 escalation of the conflict, the Contact Group called for Security Council consideration of a comprehensive arms embargo on FRY; refusal to supply to FRY equipment that might be used for internal repression or terrorism; denial of visas for senior FRY and Serbian representatives responsible for the repression; and a moratorium on government-financed export credit support for trade and investment in Serbia. Russia refused to support the last two measures, but committed to discuss additional measures if FRY failed to make progress toward fulfillment of the Contact Group’s conditions. When the Contact Group met again on April 29, it noted the on-going violence and the limited progress on conditions it had previously set, and in response, the Group decided to freeze funds held abroad by the FRY and Serbian governments. It warned if Belgrade continued to block dialogue by May 9, the Group would impose an investment ban on Serbia. Russia refused to endorse these sanctions. At a May 9 meeting of the G-8 (the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia), the gathered states agreed to implement the asset freeze and impose the investment ban, and once again Russia declared that it did not associate itself with the new sanctions.

United Nations

In the Security Council, China and Russia, both permanent members with veto power, maintained that the conflict was an internal matter, effectively blocking a forceful Security Council response to the conflict. Security Council Resolution 1160, adopted on March 31, did impose an arms embargo on FRY, a position reached with China abstaining and only after repeated warnings by the Contact Group had been ignored. Resolution 1199, a strongly worded resolution passed on September 23 (with China abstaining again), condemned acts of violence committed in Kosovo, reaffirmed the arms embargo, and, under authority of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, demanded an immediate cessation of hostilities. It called upon FRY and the Kosovo Albanian leadership to enter intoimmediate and meaningful dialogue and demanded that FRY implement immediately the measures contained in the June 12 statement of the Contact Group. The resolution called on the president of FRY to implement his own commitments made in a joint statement with the president of the Russian Federation on June 16, 1998; these included, among other things, not to carry out any repressive actions against the peaceful population, to facilitate refugee return, and to ensure full access for the ICRC and UNHCR. It stated that the Security Council would consider “further action and additional measures” if the measures demanded in its two resolutions were not taken.

U.N. Special Rapporteur for the Former Yugoslavia Jiri Dienstbier visited Kosovo twice in 1998.

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

The ICTY repeatedly stated its intention to investigate war crimes committed in the Kosovo conflict. Preliminary investigations began in September and were continued toward the end of 1998, despite the denial of some visas by the Yugoslav government. On March 13, the U.S. government committed $1.075 million to support the Tribunal’s investigation in Kosovo. Two ICTY investigators were in Kosovo in September when the atrocities in Donje Obrinje and Golubovac were discovered, but they did not visit the sites.

European Union

The E.U. response to the conflict in Kosovo was characteristic of the general failure of the international community to send a strong message and follow through with concrete action. The E.U. was slow to adopt even relatively weak measures and was particularly slow to implement and enforce the measures adopted.

The E.U. adopted a Common Position to freeze FRY and Serbian government funds on May 7, 1998, in response to the government abuses. The E.U. regulation formally imposing the asset freeze was not adopted until June 22, 1998. At the May 25 meeting of the E.U. General Affairs Council, the foreign ministers of E.U. member states concluded that, in light of the Milosevic-Rugova meeting in Belgrade, “the proposed measure to stop new investment in Serbia would not be taken forward.” That week Belgrade launched a major new offensive to create a cordon sanitaire along its border with Albania that involved serious breaches of international humanitarian law.

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

On October 13, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke announced an agreement with Milosevic, by which 2,000 OSCE monitors, called “verifiers,” would be based in Kosovo to monitor compliance with Security Council Resolutions 1160 and 1199. As of October 25, the details of the OSCE mandate had not been finalized. Questions remained about the mission’s ability to monitor and report on continued abuses, and the international community’s response to FRY non-compliance.

Freimut Duve, the OSCE high commissioner for freedom of the media, spoke out on media restrictions in FRY, and he was denied a visa to the country in September.

Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe engaged itself in the Kosovo crisis, sending several missions to FRY and adopting resolutions calling for an end to the violence. The president of the assembly, Leni Fischer, was particularly outspoken. As of this writing, the Committee of Ministers had taken no action on FRY’s March 1998 application for admission to the organization.


On June 11, NATO defense ministers directed NATO military authorities to develop a range of options for possible military action. As a demonstration of military might, they also agreed to carry out air exercises over neighboring Albania and Macedonia. These exercises, known as “Operation Determined Falcon,” were carried out on June 15 and heralded as a “serious message to Belgrade.” Planes flew over Tirana, the Albanian capital, but not over North Albania where they would have been seen by Serbian forces and the KLA alike.

NATO threats followed the revelation of massacres in late September. An activation order cleared the way for air strikes unless Milosevic complied with Security Council resolution 1199. Miloševi was given until October 17 to withdraw his troops; on October 16, NATO granted him another ten days to comply. On October 16, NATO Secretary General Solana signed an agreement withMilosevic that allowed for non-armed surveillance flights over Kosovo.

United States

The United States played a leading role within the Contact Group and carried out intensive shuttle diplomacy during the year to bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Kosovo. U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Christopher Hill dealt extensively with main actors on both sides, especially Milosevic . As of October 23, the U.S. had fifty-two members in the Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission (KDOM), with another one-hundred due to arrive soon.

According to the U.S. government, it had provided more than U.S.$44 million for humanitarian relief by September. U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes David Scheffer was denied a FRY visa in August, but Under Secretary John Shattuck and former Senator Bob Dole visited Kosovo and issued very critical statements in September.

Despite high-level delegations and great verbal condemnation, the U.S. government failed to address the human rights violations adequately, due to continued reliance on Milosevic as the principal negotiating partner and a preoccupation with maintaining the territorial integrity of the country over all other concerns, including the safety and welfare of the people of Kosovo. Little criticism was expressed during the large-scale government military offensive from July to September, and the evidence suggests that serious human rights abuses may have been tolerated to, as one anonymous diplomat put it, “knock the KLA down a peg.”

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:
Humanitarian Law Violations in Kosovo, 10/98