A Global Call for Victims’ Rights to Be Upheld in Prijedor, Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Leading world experts on truth-seeking and memorialization, including ICTJ President David Tolbert, have called on the mayor of Prijedor, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to publicly acknowledge and memorialize non-Serb victims of atrocities committed in the city in the early 1990s.

Forensic experts exhuming the Tomasica mass grave, where dozens of bodies of Bosnian civilians from Prijedor are believed to have been buried by Bosnian Serb forces. Photo by Samir Sinanovic

Prijedor holds a particular place in the world’s topography of mass atrocities, as more than 3,000 of its citizens were killed or disappeared in 1992, during the early months of the Bosnian war.

A group of leading world experts on truth-seeking and memorialization has called for the mayor of Prijedor, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to publicly acknowledge and memorialize the non-Serb victims of atrocities committed in the city in the early 1990s.

The call comes after another mass grave(*) was discovered near Prijedor that is likely to contain the bodies of some of the estimated 1,200 civilians still missing after being held at one of the area’s notorious detention camps run by Bosnian Serb forces in 1992.

Co-signers of the letter include the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez; president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, David Tolbert; executive director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Elizabeth Silkes; and leading activists on the right to truth and memorialization from Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Peru, and South Africa.

Prijedor holds a particular place in the world’s topography of mass atrocities, as more than 3,000 citizens of this city and municipality in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina were killed or disappeared in 1992, during the early months of the Bosnian war.

The images of emaciated prisoners of notorious camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje shocked the world, after Radovan Karadžić’s Bosnian Serb forces gained control of Prijedor in April 1992 and directed a well-organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” (**) against Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat residents in the area.

The brutal crimes committed in Prijedor have been thoroughly documented in trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and in Bosnian courts. More than 30 persons, including the town’s former mayor (‡) and camp commanders (§), have been convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

However, twenty years on, Prijedor’s municipal government, led by Mayor Marko Pavic, refuses to memorialize the suffering of non-Serb citizens of Prijedor, while at the same time building numerous memorials to Serb combatants who died in the conflict.

In the letter sent to Mayor Pavic and various institutions, including the United Nations Secretary General, the Bosnian government, European Union representatives, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the group of notable human rights advocates calls on the Prijedor administration to “uphold victims’ universally recognized right to the truth, which encompasses the basic right to grieve and honor their dead.”

The letter asks for Mayor Pavic to take immediate and effective steps to:

  • Initiate the building of a memorial to non-Serb victims in Prijedor, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors.
  • Allow the construction of a memorial to the victims of the Omarska detention camp, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors, and in cooperation with Arcelor Mittal, the corporation that currently owns the site.
  • Encourage accurate, constructive, and peaceful public education about the events of 1992-1995, and to withdraw any measure that targets victims’ associations and human rights activists in Prijedor for exercising their freedom of expression.

The letter concludes: “The discovery of a mass grave in Tomasica once again illustrates the dimensions of suffering endured by the citizens of Prijedor in the 1990s. The remains exhumed from its mass graves speak the difficult truth about atrocities and leave no room for denial.”

“We invite you, as Mayor of Prijedor, to rise above narrow ethnic and political agendas and reach out to your city’s most vulnerable citizens – victims’ families.”

For the full text of the letter and the list of signatories, click here.

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(*) Associated Press, September 11, 2013
(**) Sense Tribunal, "'Total Ethnic Cleansing' in Prijedor," November 26, 2010
(‡) Milomir Stakić, ICTY, Case no. IT-97-24
(§) Duško Sikirica, ICTY, Case no. IT-95-8

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