Slobodan Milosevic died while on trial for war crimes.
A row has broken out after a former ally of Slobodan Milosevic was invited to speak at a Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflict conference organised by the Foreign Office.
Ivica Dacic, Serbia’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, was given a speaking slot and front row seat at the event, which was held in Westminster.
Dacic was the spokesperson for Milosevic, the former nationalist president of Serbia who died of natural causes while standing trial at the Hague for war crimes.
Milosevic was accused of 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo between 1991 and 1999.
A diplomatic source who attended the conference told HuffPost UK that the decision to invite Dacic — who has earned the nickname “Little Sloba” — was a “scandal of epic proportions”.
“The UK has put together a conference for survivors of of sexual violence in conflict, but has placed the former spokesperson of Slobodan Milosevic in the front row — the butcher of the Balkans whose regime used rape as a tool of war against tens of thousands of women and men,” the source said.
“Today, survivors of rape during war have travelled far and wide, including from Kosovo and Bosnia, only to see a denier of these heinous crimes in the front row. Words cannot begin to describe the offence and insult this scandal has caused.
“This conference is anything but ‘for survivors, with survivors’ when someone like Dacic is in the audience.”
The Kosovo war broke out after Serbia launched a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the country, which was then controlled by Belgrade.
More than 13,000 people are thought to have been killed and up to 1.5million Albanian Kosovars displaced at the hands of the nationalist Yugoslav and Serb forces.
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia remain tense over the latter’s refusal to accept its former province declaring independence in 2008.
In the aftermath of the Kosovo war, Human Rights Watch conducted research which found that rape and other forms of sexual violence were used in Kosovo as weapons of war and instruments of systematic “ethnic cleansing”.
“Rapes were not rare and isolated acts committed by individual Serbian or Yugoslav forces, but rather were used deliberately as an instrument to terrorise the civilian population, extort money from families, and push people to flee their homes,” the report said.
When questioned about his ties to Milosevic in 2009, Dacic replied: “The past is of no interest to me because I cannot change it but we can do something to change our country’s future.”
Serbia has also still not apologised for its brutality against people in Kosovo despite repeated requests from Pristina.
In 2012 Dacic offered a vague concession, saying: “When it comes to the party I am a leader of, I believe that we should take a look at everything that happened before 2000 and learn lessons so it would never happen again.”
He also said Serbia “could apologise” for the events of the 1990s that “maybe partially were our fault”.
During one panel event, Kosovo’s foreign minister Donika Gërvalla-Schwarz said she was a “little bit shocked” to see Dacic speak at the conference “in the presence of victims and survivors”.
Stephen Doughty, Labour’s shadow minister for Europe and the Americas, said Dacic’s invitation was “highly ill-judged and insulting to survivors of sexual violence”.
“Just a few months ago I personally visited the memorial to the victims of sexual violence in the Kosovo war,” he said.
“The continued failure to address past atrocities against women and girls in past conflicts involving Serbia, under the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, makes this decision by the UK government totally inappropriate.”
Tory MP Alicia Kearns, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, also criticised Dacic’s appearance at the conference.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said:“Survivor voices are front and centre of this conference, and we recognise that difficult conversations and issues will arise.
“To address sexual violence in conflict it is important to involve different countries.
“The UK is committed to working with countries, including in the Western Balkans, to overcome the legacy of past conflict and build a more peaceful, prosperous and stable future for all.”
In his speech opening the conference, foreign secretary James Cleverly said: “The very threat of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war, or as part of its aftermath, should bring immediate international condemnation, and swift action to deter those attacks before they occur.
“Today, we stand in solidarity with survivors, determined to bring justice.
“And today I want to send an unequivocal message to those who order, allow or perpetrate sexual violence against women and girls: it isn’t combat; it isn’t strength; it is cowardice. We will not rest in our efforts to protect those potential victims, and prosecute the perpetrators.”
HuffPost UK has contacted the Serbian government and the embassy in the UK for comment.