|Aleksandar Vucic, Johannes Hahn and Miroslav Lajcak at the press conference. Photo: BETA|
After months of delays, the EU on Monday approved the opening of Chapters 23 and 24, two key rule-of-law chapters in Serbia’s accession negotiations, but insisted that Belgrade meets several benchmarks on war crimes issues.
The benchmarks set for Chapter 23, which covers the judiciary and fundamental rights, include the insistence that Serbia implements its national strategy for war crimes prosecution, adopts a prosecutorial strategy on war crimes, improves its victim assistance and witness protection programmes, and prosecutes high-level perpetrators.
Serbia must also cooperate with its neighbours on war crimes issues, particularly over missing persons from the Balkan conficts.
Serbia needs to engage “in meaningful regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations in handling of war crimes by avoiding conflicts of jurisdictions and ensuring that war crimes are prosecuted without any discrimination”, says the EU document on the opening of the chapters.
“All outstanding issues in this regard must be fully resolved,” it adds.
The EU further demanded full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, after Belgrade recently refused to send three Serbian Radical Party members to The Hague to face charges of contempt of court.
The opening of the two chapters represents an important milestone in Serbia’s accession negotiations after Croatia blocked the opening of chapters for three months.
Zagreb was insisting that Belgrade change its law on war crimes prosecution, ensure better protection of the Croatian minority in Serbia and fully cooperate with the Hague Tribunal.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that this was “a big day for Serbia”.
“We know there is a lot of work ahead of us, and that it will be hard, but we are ready,” he added.
Vucic pledged to work with his Croatian counterparts to provide better conditions for Serbia’s Croatian minority but repeated his insistence that Belgrade will not change its law on war crimes prosecution.
He explained that many EU countries have similar laws which enable some of the most brutal crimes to be prosecuted.
According to the current law, Serbia has universal jurisdiction over war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and can prosecute all crimes, no matter where they took place or who were the perpetrators.
This caused concern in Croatia, which fears that many indictments could be issued against its war veterans.
Despite the opening of chapters, Zagreb continues to insist on Serbia changing the law.
“Serbia will have to suspend that law and cooperate with The Hague. It also has an obligation to provide reparations for the victims of war and ensure that there are representatives of the Croat minority in the Serbian parliament,” Croatia’s European affairs minister Miro Kovac told media.
Croatian war veterans minister Tomo Medved said meanwhile that it was “unacceptable” for Serbia to prosecute people who defended Croatia.
“If they don’t act professionally, in line with the deadlines and revoke this law, Chapter 23 will be blocked for 20, 30 years,” Medved told a press conference.
The EU named a total of 50 interim benchmarks for Chapter 23 and 41 interim benchmarks for Chapter 24 to be met by Serbia.
Chapters 23 and 24 are considered key chapters in the EU accession process and they will remain open for negotiations until the very end of Serbia’s negotiations with the EU.
EU member Croatia has the right to block the negotiations whenever conditions or benchmarks are not met.
Slovakia’s Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, who led the EU delegation at Monday’s meeting, described the two chapters as “important and demanding”.
“These chapters are tied to basic values and principles of the EU: democracy, rule of law, independent judiciary – areas crucial for the introduction of European standards and strengthening rights of the citizens,” Lajcak said.
Serbia has now opened four out of a total of 35 chapters in its accession negotiations.