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Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Yugoslavia

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1991
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Yugoslavia, 1 January 1991, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca3a1d.html [accessed 25 April 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The drive for political and economic change in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere produced similar aspirations in Yugoslavia. Within the six republics comprising the Yugoslav federation, there have been pressures to end the one-party state and demands for multiparty democracy and increased respect for human rights.

There is a certain historical irony that Yugoslavia should find itself behind the times in the struggle for political freedom. Yugoslavia, which rejected Soviet domination in 1948, later developed a reputation for being the freest and most liberal of the Communist states in Europe. To a certain degree, this liberality was real: Yugoslav citizens were allowed to travel, to engage in small-scale private enterprise, and to read and produce artistic and journalistic works with a latitude unknown in their Warsaw Pact neighbors. But repression in Yugoslavia has been equally real: Yugoslavia is believed to have more political prisoners than any other country in Europe with the possible exception of Turkey.

Efforts in 1990 to reform and eliminate Titoism and the apparatus of the one-party state were mixed with and, in many respects, overtaken by ethnic struggles. These conflicts not only threaten the unity of the Yugoslav federation but also gave rise to severe human rights abuses, especially in the province of Kosovo, where the government of the Serbian Republic is oppressing the Albanian population, which represents some 90 percent of the province's population.

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were arrested en masse, beaten and in some instances tortured in prison, and subjected to mass firings from their jobs solely on account of their ethnicity. Serbian police units repeatedly used excessive force in confronting ethnic Albanian demonstrators, killing more than 50 people in 1990 alone.

Security forces of the Serbian government attacked ethnic Albanian villages in apparent attempts at intimidation. The Serbian government suspended the Kosovo parliament and other institutions of government in which ethnic Albanians participated, shut down for extended periods the main ethnic Albanian daily paper, Rilindia, and took all Albanian-language programming off Kosovo television and radio. It embarked on a program to disenfranchise and marginalize the ethnic Albanian population in ways constituting racism, impermissible ethnic discrimination, and grave violations of the rights of ethnic Albanians to free expression and equal political participation.

In the past, Helsinki Watch reports have found much to criticize regarding the treatment of both Serbs and Albanians by earlier governments in Kosovo, including governments composed predominantly of ethnic Albanians. As recently as September 1989, when a joint Helsinki Watch/International Helsinki Federation mission visited Kosovo province, there was some basis for the view that repression by the Serbian government against ethnic Albanians was at least partly an attempt, albeit abusively carried out, to protect the Serb minority in the province from abuse that it had suffered at the hands of the Albanian majority, rather than simply to subjugate the ethnic Albanian population. By the end of 1990, however, there no longer appeared to be any justification for the claim that the Serbian government's intervention in Kosovo aimed to protect the Serb minority.

Nor did the Serbian government seriously make such a claim. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, stated in his speeches that Serbia's assertion of power over Kosovo province was a matter of Serbia reclaiming the ancient birthplace of Serbian culture. The Serbian government thus undertook an ambitious program to resettle Serbs in Kosovo in order, in effect, to retake the province. This resettlement was being accomplished by a policy of displacing ethnic Albanians from government, schools and workplaces. The policy led to severe violations of human rights – ethnic Albanian doctors, for example, were forcibly removed from the Pristina Hospital, even directly from operating rooms – and the imposition of a military occupation on the civilian population.

Problems also arose in the republic of Croatia, where the Croatian government showed a willingness to use excessive police force in quashing ethnic unrest among the Serb minority. From August to October, armed Serbs blocked roads and sealed off towns in parts of Croatia to prevent Croatian authorities from interfering with an unofficial referendum, in which the Serbian minority declared its autonomy within Croatia. In October, the Croatian government sent special all-Croat police units to collect arms that reserve military units stored in police stations in parts of Croatia. The Serbian population demonstrated against the arms seizures and in some cases seized the arms themselves. The Croatian government, using heavy-handed police tactics, occupied several Serb villages. Because, at least in the initial stages, the arms seizures were conducted only in Serb villages, there was good reason to question whether the large show of police strength was necessary to carry out legitimate government orders or whether it was used to intimidate the minority population.

The Yugoslav federation consists of six republics, comprising a still larger number of officially recognized nationalities, still more ethnic minorities not necessarily given official recognition, and at least ten languages. These various ethnic and linguistic groups do not live within neatly partitioned regions. There are significant numbers of Serbs in Croatia, for example, significant numbers of Croats in Serbia, and significant numbers of both among the Muslim population of Bosnia-Hercegovina. The province of Kosovo contains a small minority of Serbs and Montenegrins among its ethnic Albanians, and Macedonia has a sizable ethnic Albanian minority.

All of the republics have held multiparty elections, resulting mainly in governments with strong nationalist platforms. There were calls toward the end of 1990 from the new governments in Slovenia and Croatia for the dissolution of Yugoslavia as a federal state in favor of a loose confederation of individual ethnic states. The government of Serbia, on the other hand, strengthened by contested multiparty elections in December that affirmed the nationalist leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, opposed moves either to create a confederation or to allow secession by Croatia and Slovenia. In the final months of 1990, the Yugoslav army, which has principally Serb officers and a strong pan-Yugoslav political orientation, announced that it might move to disarm the police and militia of several republics. By year's end, it was too early to tell whether the new republic governments would allow the evolution of true multiparty politics and enduring democratic institutions that would ensure the systematic protection of human rights. Because of nationalist tensions, freedom of the press to criticize the new governments within the republics may actually have declined.8

US Policy

During the Cold War, US and Western European policy toward Yugoslavia was based on the goal of keeping it independent of the Warsaw Pact. As part of this policy, Western governments avoided criticizing Yugoslavia's human rights practices. Their aim was to keep Yugoslavia stable and thus invulnerable to Soviet pressure. With the end of the Cold War, and the growing recognition that no foreign influence may suffice to hold Yugoslavia together in its current form, such attitudes were changing.9

Helsinki Watch takes no position on whether Yugoslavia ought to remain a single federal country, a confederation, or break up entirely. Its only concern is that the human rights of all individuals, including members of minority groups, are respected throughout the territory. Accordingly, it urges that economic sanctions be imposed by foreign governments to persuade Yugoslavia and its internal republics to comply with international human rights standards.

In point of fact, the European Community is by far the most important trading partner and economic actor with respect to Yugoslavia, both now and in the foreseeable future. As a consequence, the European Community and its members have the greatest ability to pressure Yugoslavia to improve its human rights record.

The United States also has some leverage. On November 5, President Bush signed into law the legislation which appropriates foreign assistance for fiscal year 1991. It included a provision (which takes effect six months after enactment, or in May 1991) which bars bilateral assistance to Yugoslavia and also requires US representatives to international financial institutions to oppose loans to Yugoslavia unless all six of the individual republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have held free and fair multiparty elections and are not engaged in a pattern of gross violations of human rights. Humanitarian assistance is exempted from this provision. The law permits the President to waive the provisions if Yugoslavia is found to be making "significant strides toward complying with the obligations of the Helsinki Accords and is encouraging any Republic which has not held free and fair elections to do so." Now that multiparty elections have been held in all the republics there is reason to fear that the provision may be deemed satisfied despite the ongoing abuses that are taking place in Kosovo. Helsinki Watch would oppose such a move until gross abuses in Kosovo are curbed.

Yugoslavia stands to receive considerable assistance from international financial institutions. Section 701 of the International Financial Institutions Act requires the US to oppose such loans to any country engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Again, Helsinki Watch urges the US to oppose such loans because of the violations of human rights in Kosovo.

Various members of Congress, some acting in response to ethnic constituencies in their home districts, took an interest in Yugoslavia and brought considerable publicity to human rights issues, particularly in Kosovo.10 The US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmermann, also scrupulously attacked violations of human rights by all perpetrators. Ambassador Zimmermann did not hesitate publicly to criticize and denounce violations; members of his staff actively sought out information on abuses and brought them before government authorities. The record of the US embassy in this regard was exemplary, especially as the crisis in Kosovo deepened.

Nevertheless, as a matter of policy, Ambassador Zimmermann and the US State Department did not support the suspension of such US economic assistance as exists. The State Department made the traditional argument that a stable, unified Yugoslavia is important to US security interests. In addition, the argument was made against economic sanctions on human rights grounds. Economic sanctions against Yugoslavia, it was said, particularly if imposed in a way that undermines the Yugoslav federal government, will inevitably tend to drive Yugoslavia to break up, with human rights virtually guaranteed to suffer. Conversely, it was argued, strengthening the Yugoslav federal government, while publicly denouncing the abuses engaged in by its constituent republics, aims at the best human rights outcome. Helsinki Watch recognizes the strengths and good intentions of this argument.

Nonetheless, Helsinki Watch does not endorse this position. As a human rights monitoring group, we do not take positions on which political arrangements within Yugoslavia or which political strategies may or may not ultimately serve to protect human rights. Rather, Helsinki Watch believes that the United States should distance itself from abusive governments and express its disapproval by ending most forms of economic support, as provided by US human rights law. Section 116 of the Foreign Assistance Act provides that governments engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights should be given no economic assistance except that which benefits the poor, or meets basic human needs. Such gross abuses – including torture and arbitrary killings – are being committed in the province of Kosovo because of the policies of the Serbian government. Because the federal government in Belgrade continues to be, formally at least, the government of Yugoslavia, it must under US law be held responsible for human rights abuses that occur in the various republics.

Helsinki Watch also takes the position that sanctions should be directed not only at the government formally responsible for preventing abuse, but also at any abusing agencies, such as abusive security forces or abusive local governments. If, in fact, the federal government of Yugoslavia lacks control over the security forces of its various republics, as more and more appears to be the case, then it becomes increasingly important that to the extent possible economic sanctions be applied directly against the republic governments engaged in abuse, as in the case of development aid or loans that might bypass the central government.

Helsinki Watch thus urges that economic sanctions be used against the federal government of Yugoslavia and, when possible, against the government of the republic of Serbia which is involved in egregious human rights abuses in the province of Kosovo. We also urge that the situation in other republics of Yugoslavia be carefully monitored, especially in Croatia where there is a potentially explosive human rights situation, and that economic sanctions be applied in the future to any republic engaged in egregious human rights abuses.

The Work of Helsinki Watch

In March, Helsinki Watch released a report, Crisis in Kosovo, which criticized the Yugoslav government's imposition of a virtual military occupation in Kosovo as a reaction to the instability there. The report was based on a joint mission to Yugoslavia of Helsinki Watch and the International Helsinki Federation. Members of the mission spoke with ethnic Albanians in small villages in Kosovo as well as human rights activists, including members of the Yugoslav Helsinki Committee. They also interviewed lawyers and legislators in Belgrade. On the official level, the mission met with the President of the Presidency of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Janez Drnovsek, and with the Deputy Federal Secretary of Justice.

In October, Helsinki Watch sent another mission to Yugoslavia which visited the republics of Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia. In Kosovo, the mission participants talked with ethnic Albanians in the capital city of Pristina and in nearby villages, including the ethnic Albanian village of Polat, where in mid-September Serbian forces launched a violent attack. The Helsinki Watch team also investigated ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats in Croatia, and discussed various problems in Serbia and Macedonia. An op-ed article by Helsinki Watch on ferment in Yugoslavia appeared in the New York Times on November 10, and a newsletter on recent developments in Yugoslavia was released in December.


8 See "Truth is a Casualty of Partisan Yugoslav Press," New York Times, September 13, 1990.

9 See Jeri Laber and Kenneth Anderson, "Why Keep Yugoslavia One Country?" New York Times, November 10, 1990.

10 For example, public statements by Senator Dole while he and other members of a US congressional delegation were in Kosovo in September received wide press attention in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. See Reuters, September 7, 1990.

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