– As Delivered –
WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, today made the following remarks at a joint Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the Helsinki Commission briefing on pursuing justice for past atrocities in the Western Balkans:
“Well, thank you. Thanks very much. I’ll try to move closer. And I thank the speaker who we just heard. Very important message that he sent, so thank you for your testimony.
“It’s important that the world really knows what has gone on and what continues to go on. So, it takes a great deal of courage and so we all salute you for your courage. Thank you so much.
“Mr. Chairman, as the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and as someone who has followed the Balkans for a long, long time, I want to thank the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the Helsinki Commission for holding today’s excellent joint briefing on the state of accountability for atrocities committed during the wars in the western Balkans in the 1990s.
“As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) winds up its work, this is the right time to look back on its successes and failures and to learn the lessons of its efforts to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice.
“We all know the history to one extent or another. After the death of Tito—who held the Yugoslav country together, Yugoslavia together for many years—the country began to break up. But, unlike the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia’s dissolution turned into a vicious ethnic bloodletting—the most brutal to occur on the European continent since World War II.
“The conflicts over Yugoslav succession, the conflicts were characterized by widespread and flagrant violations of international humanitarian law, war crimes and crimes against humanity. And the ICTY was set up to bring the violators of the worst crimes to justice.
“I would like to commend the Helsinki Commission and the Lantos Commission for working together on this joint briefing to assess the Tribunal’s work.
“But, Mr. Chairman, even as ICTY closes down, I fear that the need for justice in the former Yugoslavia has not diminished, and I would like to highlight two particularly horrific cases in Serbia.
“While there has indeed been progress toward democracy in [Serbia], I believe that it has been held back by a continual unwillingness to deal with crimes committed during the 1999 Kosovo War.
“First, let’s recall the fate of the Bytyçi brothers—three American citizens who were murdered after they were arrested by Serbian police while trying to help their neighbors—a Roma family—return home.
“Serbia’s President Vucic promised Vice President Biden and personally promised me to bring the criminals to justice and said it would happen very soon. That was a long time ago and it has not yet occurred despite widespread understanding of who was behind the crimes.
“Before continuing, I would like to highlight the very important work of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center which forms the basis of what I am about to recount. I thank your representative, again, for being us, with us here today from Belgrade.
“On January 31st of this year, the Humanitarian Law Center released a Dossier called ‘The cover-up of evidence of crimes during the war in Kosovo: THE CONCEALMENT OF BODIES OPERATION.’ This report describes mass graves in Serbia containing the bodies of 941 Kosovo-Albanians, mainly civilians killed outside combat situations in Kosovo during 1999.
“According to the report, and I quote it:
‘The evidence corroborated that the decision to conceal evidence of crimes committed was planned as early as March 1999 at the highest level of the government, and indicated that members of both departments of the Serbian MUP (which is the State Security Department and the Public Security Department) and the Yugoslav Army’s departments in charge of ‘clearing up the terrain’ were involved in it.’
“The murder and mass burial of almost 1,000 innocent civilians is a grave crime against humanity, but the perpetrators have not only gone unpunished, they have not even been pursued.
“Mr. Chairman, it’s long past time for Belgrade to face the facts and bring justice, bring to justice the people—including high officials in its very government—who are behind these very serious crimes.
“At the same time, the Serbian unwillingness to achieve justice has brought no adjustment in policy from the United States, and the European Union’s willingness to proceed with Serbia’s accession process to the EU has been unaffected. This has to stop, and it has to stop now.
“Until Serbia brings those who have committed these serious crimes to justice, the EU should not move ahead with Belgrade’s accession process and the United States should think twice before advancing our relations with Serbia.
“Mr. Chairman, I asked Secretary of State Tillerson and Deputy Secretary Sullivan what they were going to do about this mass-murder and cover-up.
“In its response to me, the State Department expressed the beliefs, and I quote: ‘That those guilty of moving the bodies of Albanian civilians from Kosovo to clandestine mass graves in Serbia to conceal evidence of earlier massacres should be brought to justice.’ The Department has ‘brought the report by the Humanitarian Law Center to the attention of Serbia’s newly appointed War Crimes Prosecutor.’
“I thank the State Department for raising the issue with Serbia’s War Crimes Prosecutor. This is an important step forward, and in the days ahead, I look forward to an update from the Department and will pay close attention to whether Belgrade finally brings to justice those who committed these horrific crimes.
“So again, thank you to the Commissions for this briefing and for your willingness to tackle these difficult issues. Thanks so much.”
# # #