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Serbia's new human-rights role questioned

Serbia takes the lead of a European rights council Friday, even as ultranationalism deepens.

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Western resolve in dealing with virulent Serbian nationalism continues to rankle human rights groups and embarrass European leaders as Serbia – which still harbors two war criminals charged with genocide in Bosnia – Friday takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of Europe, a postwar body whose chief aim is to protect human rights and exemplify democratic principles.

The ironies of Serbia taking a symbolic leadership role in the council are compounded by mounting worry in Washington and Europe about a rightward shift in Serbian politics following the election this week of a pro-Russian ultranationalist as parliament speaker. The shift could signal a new revanchism on the eve of a UN Security Council vote leading to the independence of the country's majority-Albanian province of Kosovo, the mythic heartland of Serbia's proud identity.

Serbia is at a "crossroads," stated an EU commissioner, Olli Rehn, who described the election of Radical Party chief Tomislav Nikolic to Serbia's No. 2 spot as "a worrying sign."

As president of the Council, Serbia runs the European Court of Human Rights, and will issue statements on rights violations, treatment of prisoners, and norms regarding freedom and democratic reform.

Human rights groups protest Serbia's presidency, arguing that Belgrade is, at a minimum, out of compliance with standards like the 1948 Geneva Convention, since it knowingly harbors Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s.

"It's ludicrous," says Quentin Hoare, director of the Bosnian Institute in London. "I know the democratic forces in Serbia are small, and I'm all for Serbian integration into Europe. But to allow Serbia in without compliance with democratic norms – is actually destabilizing."

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