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EU enlargement: Renew Europe encourages Serbia to put reforms back on track and welcomes Kosovo’s EU commitment

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The Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament regrets the lack of progress in many areas of Serbia’s reform agenda and the fact that there has even been backsliding on issues that are fundamental for EU accession such as rule of law, fundamental rights, media freedom, and the functioning of democratic institutions and public administration. These findings are part of the progress report today adopted by the plenary, which encourages Serbian authorities to show in both words and deeds their commitment to European values and the EU accession process.

Nevertheless, MEPs welcome the fact that EU membership continues to be Serbia’s strategic goal and that it is among the priorities of the government. Renew Europe MEP, Klemen Grošelj (Lista Marjana Šarca, Slovenia), shadow rapporteur on Serbia, said: "Serbia's path to the EU is wide open, the path is known, the advantages and disadvantages are known, as well as obstacles along the way, and now it is up to Serbia to find the will and energy to follow this path quickly, efficiently and in the interest of its citizens. It takes hard work to find a broad political and social consensus, but any shortcut, as tempting as it may be, is already proving to be a significantly worse alternative to Serbia’s European integration."

Renew Europe MEP, Ilhan Kyuchyuk, (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, Bulgaria), shadow rapporteur on Kosovo, welcomed the country’s efforts to implement reforms and to maintain constructive neighbourly relations throughout the region: “Kosovo demonstrated continued and strong commitment to advancing on its European path and to accelerating reforms, as well as strong support for European integration among the population. It is high time for all EU member states to recognise Kosovo and allow its citizens to benefit from visa liberalization because all benchmarks have been fulfilled since 2018. The last elections once again demonstrated that the country deserves credit for showing high levels of political maturity and I look forward for the new government to speed up the reforms and work actively on the Pristina - Belgrade dialogue.”

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Bosnia and Herzegovina

New peace envoy gets hostile reception from Bosnian Serb leaders

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European Union High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt speaks during the handover ceremony in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina August 2, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

German politician Christian Schmidt (pictured) took up the post of Bosnia's international peace overseer on Monday (2 August) after a hostile reception by Bosnian Serb leaders who want the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to be scrapped, writes Daria Sito-sucic.

Schmidt, a former government minister, replaced Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko after 12 years as the international High Representative in Bosnia, whose office oversees the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.

"It's an honour for me to take this responsibility and serve the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina," Schmidt said during the official takeover ceremony in the capital of Sarajevo.

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But Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, said Schmidt was not welcome.

"You were not chosen as the High Representative. The Serb Republic ... will not respect anything you do," he said.

The OHR was set up as part of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords that ended Bosnia's 1992-95 war to supervise the reconstruction of a country torn apart by conflict in which 100,000 died.

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Schmidt's approval in late May by the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, a body gathering representatives of major world organisations and governments, was rejected by Bosnian Serbs and their ally Russia. Read more.

Late in July, Russia and China also failed to get the U.N. Security Council to strip some OHR powers and shut it down. Read more.

The Bosnian Serbs have long requested the shutdown of the OHR.

Last week, the parliament of Bosnia's Serb-dominated Serb Republic rejected making the denial of the Srebrenica genocide a crime, threatening the dissolution of Bosnia and passing its own decrees instead. Read more.

Serb nationalists deny that genocide occurred in 1995 at the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica, when about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces, despite such rulings by two international courts.

International envoys, whose powers stem from the Dayton peace treaty, can impose laws and fire officials.

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Genocide conviction upheld against former Bosnian Serb military chief Mladic

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United Nations war crimes judges on Tuesday (8 June) upheld a genocide conviction and life sentence against former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, confirming his central role in Europe’s worst atrocities since World War Two, write Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie Van Den Berg.

Mladic, 78, led Bosnian Serb forces during Bosnia's 1992-95 war. He was convicted in 2017 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes including terrorising the civilian population of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo during a 43-month siege, and the killing of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys taken prisoner in the eastern town of Srebrenica in 1995.

"His name should be consigned to the list of history's most depraved and barbarous figures," chief tribunal prosecutor Serge Brammertz said after the verdict. He urged all officials in the ethnically divided region of former Yugoslavia to condemn the ex-general.

Mladic, who had contested both the guilty verdict and life sentence at his trial, wore a dress shirt and black suit and stood looking at the floor as the appeals judgment was read out in court in The Hague.

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The appeals chamber "dismisses Mladic appeal in its entirety..., dismisses the prosecution's appeal in its entirety..., affirms the sentence of life imprisonment imposed on Mladic by the trial chamber," presiding judge Prisca Nyambe said.

The outcome caps 25 years of trials at the ad hoc International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which convicted 90 people. The ICTY is one of the predecessors of the International Criminal Court, the world's first permanent war crimes court, also seated in The Hague.

"I hope that with this Mladic judgment children in (Bosnia's Serb-run entity) Republika Srpska and children in Serbia who are living in lies will read this, " Munira Subasic, whose son and husband were killed by Serb forces that overran Srebrenica, said after the ruling, highlighting Serb genocide denial.

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Many Serbs still regard Mladic as a hero, not a criminal.

Post-war Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, now chairing Bosnia's tripartite inter-ethnic presidency, denounced the verdict. "It's clear to us there is an attempt here to create a myth about genocide that never occurred," Dodik said.

'HISTORIC JUDGMENT'

Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is guided by a French Foreign Legion officer as he arrives at a meeting hosted by French U.N. commander General Philippe Morillon at the airport in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in March, 1993. Picture taken in March, 1993.  REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic gestures prior to the pronouncement of his appeal judgement at the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) in The Hague, Netherlands June 8, 2021. Peter Dejong/Pool via REUTERS
A Bosnian Muslim woman reacts as she awaits the final verdict of former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic in the Srebrenica-Potocari Genocide Memorial Center, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 8, 2021. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

In Washington, the White House praised the work of the UN tribunals in bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice.

"This historic judgment shows that those who commit horrific crimes will be held accountable. It also reinforces our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world," it said in a statement.

The appeals judges said Mladic, who after his ICTY indictment was a fugitive for 16 years until his 2011 capture, would remain in custody in The Hague while arrangements were made for his transfer to a state where he will serve his sentence. It is not yet known which country will take him.

Lawyers for Mladic had argued that the former general could not be held responsible for possible crimes committed by his subordinates. They sought an acquittal or a retrial.

Prosecutors had asked the appeals panel to uphold Mladic's conviction and life sentence in full.

They also wanted him to be found guilty of an additional charge of genocide over a campaign of ethnic cleansing - a drive to expel Bosnian Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs in order to carve out a Greater Serbia - in the early years of the war that included brutal detention camps that shocked the world.

That prosecution appeal was also dismissed. The 2017 verdict found that the ethnic cleansing campaign amounted to persecution - a crime against humanity - but not genocide.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday the final Mladic ruling meant the international justice system had held him to account.

"Mladic’s crimes were the abhorrent culmination of hatred stoked for political gain," Bachelet said in a statement.

The lower ICTY court ruled Mladic was part of "a criminal conspiracy" with Bosnian Serb political leaders. It also found he was in "direct contact" with then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 shortly before the verdict in his own ICTY trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Mladic wasjudged to have played a decisive role in some of the most gruesome crimes committed on European soil since the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two.

The tribunal determined that Mladic was pivotal in the Srebrenica slaughter - which occurred in a UN-designated “safe area” for civilians -since he controlled both the military and police units involved.

Joint Statement by the High Representative Josep Borrell and Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi on the sentencing of Ratko Mladic for genocide

The final judgement in the case of Ratko Mladić by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) brings to an end a key trial in Europe’s recent history for war crimes, including genocide, which took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Remembering those who lost their lives, our deepest sympathies are with their loved ones and those who survived. This judgement will contribute to the healing for all those who suffered.

"The EU expects all political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the Western Balkans to demonstrate full cooperation with international tribunals, respect their decisions and acknowledge their independence and impartiality.

"Genocide denial, revisionism and glorification of war criminals contradict the most fundamental European values. Today’s decision is an opportunity for leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region, in view of the facts, to lead the way in honouring victims and promote an environment conducive to reconciliation to overcome the legacies of the war and build lasting peace. 

"This is a prerequisite for the stability and security of the Bosnia and Herzegovina and fundamental for its EU path. It is also amongst the 14 key priorities of the Commission Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU membership application.

"International and domestic courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the neighbouring countries need to continue their mission to provide justice for all victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and their family members. There can be no impunity."

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Rio Tinto’s gung-ho mining exploration on the border of the European Union should worry us all

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After the scandal of Juukan Gorge, and boardroom crises, it is time shareholders pushed back at Rio Tinto’s gung-ho approach to mining, writes Zlatko Kokanovic.

Life in an EU accession country is a double-edged sword; at least in Serbia. Many believe that membership of the European bloc will bring new hope. On good days we like to believe that EU membership will strengthen the rule of law and hold our elected officials to account. But such days are rare in a country when the promise of investment can buy anything. Our accession status has created a climate for nefarious investment activity. Corporate organizations, eager to benefit from single-market membership without the regulatory costs, have found fertile ground in Serbia. Yet, their investment offers little to ordinary Serbs and those Europeans that value the environment.

One sector where this is evident is in mining. Here, the official position is that it generates added value for the Serbian economy.  Our government has signed secret memorandums of understanding with investors, such as Rio Tinto, which permit not just access to our country’s national resources but a compliant administration that is willing to bend regulation to their needs, during this accession window. The environmental damage of this cannot be overstated. Rio Tinto’s proposed jadarite mine will not only threaten one of Serbia’s oldest and most important archaeological sites, it will also endanger several protected bird species, pond terrapins, and fire salamander, which would otherwise be protected by EU directives. 

I live in the Jadar valley in western Serbia, where I work as a vet.  Rio Tinto’s plan covers twenty-two villages and will require the purchase of many hundreds of hectares of land for the mine, its toxic waste dumps, roads, railways. Yet, against a backdrop of a fractured political opposition, they and the government may do as they please. Only recently, Rio Tinto benefited from a new law that imposed the costs for a new road and railway to the mine on Serbian taxpayers. 

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It's also clear that, over time, Rio Tinto will want to expand the scale of their operations, given that the facility only covers 35% of the projected amount of ore. The mine is to be situated on the bank of the Korenita river, a tributary to the Jadar river, with underground mining set to be located underneath both river beds. Close by there will be a flotation facility which will use   concentrated sulphuric acid. The Jadar and the Korenita rivers are prone to flooding, meaning there is a high risk that the mining waste will end up in these two rivers, and escape into other major rivers – including the Drina, the Sava, and the Danube rivers. The proposal is low-cost and expandable, which, taken together, is the worst combination given that most accidents occur with badly planned mine extensions that keep adding to the tailings and waste deposits.

Rio Tinto doesn’t have the permission of the community to mine in Jadar and we intend to fight. This week we staged protests outside Rio Tinto offices in London, Washington DC and Belgrade, to coincide with the mining giant’s annual shareholder meeting. We also intend to obtain injunctions on Rio Tinto’s proposals, and block permit after permit. Our government has no control over the implementation of its own environmental laws; let alone its obligations towards the EU environmental law. We have therefore asked the EU to confirm that permits will need to meet applicable European standards and legislation. We have also encouraged our neighbours to assess a potential transboundary impact in view of triggering the Espoo convention on environmental permitting. And this is just the start.

This mine threatens not only our future, but our history. Many of us own land of archaeological importance, with remains dating back to the Bronze Age. It is also an area that contains classified natural monuments, which are now within the mine’s footprint. It poses a question to Rio Tinto shareholders, who are meeting in London this week: how can the new CEO, Jacob Strausholm, square his commitment to protecting the cultural heritage of sites, when, in Serbia, his employees are developing a mine on historically important estate, dating back to the 14th century BC, below international standards?

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Our fight has grown into a movement, called ‘Mars Sa Drine!’ (Get off the Drina!). Established  two months ago, it unites twenty Serbian NGOs, environmental experts and over 60.000 citizens. Our hope is that, in time, this movement will grow stronger and stronger, and push-back at aggressive resource procurement by organisations that care little for the values of Europe. We should, perhaps, be grateful to Rio Tinto for connecting citizens and uniting our country against such activity. But we’ll only reflect on this once we win. 

Zlatko Kokanovic is a veterinarian and the vice president of ‘Ne Damo Jadar’.

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