Youth Initiative for Human Rights (Initiative) strongly condemns the statements by the Minister of Defense, Aleksandar Vulin, and the Secretary General of the President of Serbia, Nikola Selaković, made during yesterday’s gathering of the former officers of the Third Army of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ) entitled “Do not Forget” in the Army Center in Niš. The main guests of the gathering included two convicted war criminals, Nikola Šainović and Vladimir Lazarević, who addressed the participants as the last commander of the VJ Third Army.

We are urgently requesting the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic to distance themselves from the statements made by their cabinet members, Selaković and Vulin, and to forgo all convicted war criminals once and for all. Otherwise, their silence will be understood as a confirmation that the politics of war crimes denial and glorification of war criminals is, in fact, the official policy of the Republic of Serbia. Notwithstanding the reaction of executive authorities, the Initiative argues that a minimum of self-respect of any given society is reflected, inter alia, through respect for the victims and condemnation of those who have committed the most serious crimes (free from jeopardizing civil rights) and calls upon all institutions of the Republic of Serbia, political actors, civil society organizations, and the media to join us defending the dignity of Serbian public.

Addressing the former officers of the VJ Third Army, but first and foremost the former general Lazarević, Minister Vulin stated that “no one will be ashamed of these people again, because the troops they commanded and the people they defended have never been ashamed of them.” Nikola Selaković, General Secretary of the President of the Republic of Serbia, added that “the Republic of Serbia has an obligation to appreciate the professionalism of the former Army of Yugoslavia, particularly the Third Army, the one that was under attack the most during an armed rebellion in Kosovo and Metohija in 1998 and during the NATO aggression in 1999.” Defense Minister and General Secretary of the President of Serbia should know that the “professional relationship” of certain officers they take pride in brought to more than 13,000 victims and 800,000 displaced persons. Therefore, this should not be a time of “silent pride” but more a time to face the facts that ought to be accompanied by the moral and political condemnation of crimes.

We would like to remind Minister Vulin and the Secretary General of the President of the Republic Selaković that Vladimir Lazarević has been legally convicted before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on 23 January 2014 and sentenced to 14 years in prison for deportation and forced displacement of the Albanian civilians in Kosovo conducted by the members of the VJ Third Army who Lazarević provided with practical assistance to perform those crimes. During this gathering, Nikola Šainović, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, charged with crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war in Kosovo between 1 January and 20 June 1999 by the ICTY, could be clearly seen sitting in the first row. Indictment against him included allegations of deportation and other inhumane acts, murder and persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds with the intent to forcibly displace part of Kosovo Albanians and change the ethnic balance with the aim of re-establishing the control of Serbia in Kosovo. Šainović was sentenced to 18 years in prison the same day as Lazarević. After having served two thirds of his sentence, he returned to Belgrade in 2015 where he was expressly appointed a member of the Main Board of the Socialist Party of Serbia.

Such statements made by the Serbian officials are just another in a series of ruthless blows to the victims of war in Kosovo, the expanding trend which began by defense of Ljubiša Diković and cemented by a celebratory welcome to Šainović and Lazarević. In order to break the downward spiral of the most unabashed lying to the Serbian public about Kosovo by masking crimes with defense of the country and providing the young people with role models who besmirched the honor of this country with blood, we invite the Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and the President of the Republic of Aleksandar Vučić to distance themselves from dangerous statements made by their partners in the Government and the Presidency of Serbia. Bearing in mind the announcements of the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic to reopen a dialogue on Kosovo, we have the right to request from them a responsible political action which, as noted in our Guide, should begin by the admission of war crimes committed by Serbia and condemnation of individuals responsible and sentenced for those crimes.

*Photo: the activists of the Initiative at the training ground of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit in Batajnica where a mass grave containing the remains of more than 700 Kosovo Albanians has been uncovered in 2001.