28 years since the military-police action “Storm” – without mature political narratives

Centre for Civic Education (CCE) pays tribute to the innocent victims of crime during Operation “Storm”, which lasted from 4 to 7 August 1995, and reiterates the importance and obligation of revealing the truth about the missing, prosecuting war crimes and justice for victims as a permanent duty of all governments in the region.

We remind that 28 years ago, with the attack on Knin, at dawn on 4 August 1995, the long-prepared exodus of Serbs from Krajina began. In the military-police operation “Storm”, conducted by the Croatian units, systematic crimes were committed against civilians of Serbian nationality and their property. For a few days, about 250,000 people were expelled, mainly to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia, and thousands of houses and other buildings were burned. To date, a large number of refugees have not returned to the areas from which they were expelled. According to data from the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, by the end of 1995, about 400 Serbs who chose to stay in their homes were killed.

With deep disappointment and serious concern, we condemn the fact that justice related to the crimes during Operation Storm was not served, and the criminal legal processes were not carried out in a proper manner. This represents a deep-rooted injustice to the victims and their families, as well as to society as a whole.

We remind that in the previous court proceedings, only before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2008 for crimes against the Serbian population in “Storm”, were accused General Ante Gotovina, Commander of the Croatian Armed Forces Split and Chief Operational Commander of Operation Storm in the southern part of Krajina, then Ivan Čermak, Commander of the Knin Corps and Mladen Markač, Commander of the Special Police of the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Croatia. The first-instance verdict, from 2011, sentenced Gotovina and Markač to 24 and 18 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, while Čermak was acquitted, and after an appeal, the following year, Gotovina and Markač were acquitted from criminal liability too. This verdict caused a great deal of controversy as the ICTY Trial and Appeals Chamber – based on the same facts and the same right – have reached diametrically opposite conclusions on the key issues disputed by the prosecution and the defence at trial. Those conclusions do not put into question the facts on what happened during and after Operation „Storm”.

Inadequate criminal-legal processes make it difficult for those guilty of crimes to be held accountable for their misdeed, which significantly threatens the sense of trust in the judicial system and state institutions. The establishment of justice for the victims of Operation “Storm” represents a basic human right, and it is necessary for competent institutions and political leaders to take appropriate steps to provide a fair and transparent system, which will solve numerous issues of the missing, the tragically injured, their families, the displaced, command responsibility, reparations and memorialization, which deeply burden the entire society of the region.

Today, when we remember one of the greatest sufferings in the recent history of the region, we must not ignore the fact that we witness the political abuse of this tragedy every day. Instead of focusing on reconciliation and building a better future, irresponsible political actors are instrumentalizing the suffering of innocent victims to achieve their political ambitions. In order to truly honour the victims, we must unite and ensure that this important historical lesson is used to build a society that stands for justice, truth and reconciliation, not political manipulation.

With the aim of creating a society based on the rule of law, the CCE calls on competent authorities and political actors to take the necessary measures to ensure a fair and civilized attitude towards this crime. Only through the adequate application of laws and responsible political narratives we can build a society that respects victims, avoids their political abuse and ensures that crimes are never forgotten and as such are not repeated.

Tamara Milaš, Human Rights Programme Coordinator