Miro Kovac.jpg
Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac
Photograph: HINA/ Damir SENČAR /ds

Serbia must abolish its jurisdiction over war crimes in Croatia or otherwise it will not be able to advance towards EU membership, Croatian Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Miro Kovac said in Zagreb on Monday, stressing that the disputed Serbian law was "de facto suspended".

Serbia opened two key chapters in its EU accession negotiations in Brussels on Monday -- Chapter 23, dealing with the judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24, concerning freedom, justice and security.

Croatia had blocked the opening of Chapter 23 for some time, demanding guarantees that Serbia would not abuse its law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes trials and that it would ensure rights for the Croatian minority in Serbia and full cooperation with the Hague war crimes tribunal.

The EU's common negotiating position now incorporates, at Croatia's request, the need for regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations in prosecuting war crimes, including a goal to avoid a conflict of jurisdiction. 

Kovac told the press that this meant that Serbia would have to abolish its jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Croatia during the 1991-1995 war. "It will have to change that law, it will have to suspend it," he said and added: "Basically, as of today that law in Serbia is de facto suspended."

Serbia will have to fully cooperate with the Hague tribunal, respect and implement all its rulings, and all the accused will have to be handed over to the Hague tribunal. Serbia will also have to work with Croatia in searching for missing persons and mortal remains and in exchanging information. It will have to make it possible for war victims to seek compensation and ensure that the Croatian minority in Serbia has its guaranteed representative in the National Assembly, Kovac said.

"All these have become Serbia's obligations as of today, after it accepted the negotiating framework for judiciary and fundamental rights," Kovac said. "We now expect the authorities in Serbia not to comment, in their characteristic way, on these obligations which they accepted at the intergovernmental conference in Brussels today, but to start honouring their obligations."

"We don't want them to intimidate Croatian veterans and Croatian citizens by saying that they are prosecuting someone. That's out of the question. Croatia has its own judiciary. Croatia is responsible for its own territory and Serbia and its war crimes legislation cannot have jurisdiction over Croatia and Croatian citizens. That will not be possible any more," he said.

"Croatian veterans will feel safe in Croatian territory and the Croatian state authorities will guarantee that," the minister stressed.

Kovac said that Zagreb would be closely following the implementation of these obligations. "Without meeting these obligations, these criteria, these benchmarks, Serbia will not be able to advance towards the European Union," he said.

Commenting on last week's statement by Serbian war crimes prosecutor Milan Petrovic that Croatian veterans were under investigation for alleged war crimes committed in Croatia, Kovac said that this was unacceptable and that Croatia expected Serbia to deny this was true.

"This is really unacceptable and we strongly reject it," Kovac said, noting that the Croatian ambassador to the EU also said this in Brussels today. "We expect the authorities in Serbia to refute the statement made by the war crimes prosecutor and to make it clear that they will no longer apply their law on war crimes to Croatia."

Kovac said that the Croatian government had decided today to give the Serbian authorities a deadline for notification of the suspension of the law in question.

Responding to a reporter's remark that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic did not see the Croatian demands this way, Kovac reiterated that Croatia would not allow Serbia to proceed on its EU path until all the demands were met.

Kovac said that Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, whose country currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency, made it clear in his statement that Serbia was obliged to comply with all the criteria set out in the EU's negotiating position.

"If Mr Vucic thinks that he does not have to do that, he will not take his country into the European Union. That will not be possible because Croatia will keep a watchful eye on what the Serbian authorities are doing. If they act irresponsibly, they will not be able to progress towards EU membership. The Croatian government guarantees that," Kovac said.

"We will not allow Serbia to advance towards EU membership until its meets all the demands, until they notify us that they are suspending the law governing war crimes in Croatia. Until then it will not be able to move forward towards EU membership, very simple," he stressed.

Kovac was speaking to the press after a meeting at government headquarters with Croatian veterans on this issue. "The veterans are rightfully angered, concerned and upset by the statement made by the Serbian war crimes prosecutor."

"We explained to the veterans that now we have a platform, a very clear position of Croatia and the European Union. That is not just a Croatian position but a position of the entire European Union saying what Serbia must do. If Serbia does not want to do that, it will not be able to enter the EU, that's very simple," Kovac said.

Minister of Veterans' Affairs Tomo Medved would not speculate as to how many Croatian veterans may have been indicted by Serbia, emphasising that Croatian veterans would never again be persecuted.

"We are an independent, sovereign state. We fought a just war of liberation, the Homeland War, and the existence of and any action under this law on so-called regional or universal jurisdiction is unacceptable," Medved said. "Croatian veterans will never again be persecuted by anyone," he added.

Medved said that Croatian veterans would be monitoring how Serbia was honouring its obligations. He warned that unless the disputed law was repealed shortly "Chapter 23 will be blocked for 20 or 30 years if necessary."

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