The provision of effective protection and support for witnesses in the context of wartime-related criminal proceedings is instrumental to the fight against impunity for the crimes committed during the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. However, over recent days, the name of a protected witness in a war crime case in Bosnia and Herzegovina allegedly implicating the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska has been published in local media outlets, and war crime files containing the names of witnesses allegedly belonging to the Specialist Kosovo Chambers were anonymously transferred to a veterans’ organisation in Kosovo*. These developments are unacceptable and raise a number of serious issues to be addressed by the relevant authorities, prosecutors’ offices and courts.
Lack of effective protection of witnesses has been an issue of concern in the countries in the region for many years. It has deterred many witnesses from coming forward and giving invaluable testimonies about war crimes and the possible locations of mass graves holding the remains of thousands of persons still missing in the region. Many protected witnesses are war crime victims themselves and live in the same communities as the perpetrators. In some cases where witnesses’ names have been disclosed their lives have been endangered and their families threatened, and some witnesses have been ostracised by their own communities because of their testimonies.
I call on all politicians and members of the judiciary in the region to take the issue of the protection of witnesses in war crimes cases seriously and to take all the necessary measures to ensure that no witness has to fear for their life when testifying in a war crimes case. Crucially, this includes promptly identifying and bringing to justice persons attempting to intimidate witnesses.
I also appeal to media professionals not to disclose information about the identity of protected witnesses. In doing so, not only do they violate ethical codes of journalism, but they risk being held criminally responsible.
* All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.