Int'l Hague Court: Serbia cleared of Bosnian genocide

Court rules however that it failed to prevent the genocidal slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica.

February 26, 2007 16:40

The United Nations' highest court on Monday exonerated Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide in Bosnia in the early 1990s, but ruled that it failed to prevent the genocidal slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. In a landmark judgment, the International Court of Justice said Serbia also failed to comply with its obligations to punish those who carried out the genocide after the Bosnian Serb army captured the UN enclave in July 1995, and ordered Belgrade to hand over suspects for trial by a separate UN court. However, it rejected Bosnia's claim for monetary reparations. "Financial compensation is not the appropriate form of reparation for the breach of the obligation to prevent genocide," the judgment said. Outside the Peace Palace, which houses the court, dozens of Bosnian Muslim "demonstrators chanted, 'Thieves. Corrupt judges.' " "The Hague is committing genocide. Europe is committing genocide. They couldn't make a just verdict," said demonstrator Mehmedalija Covic. The case before the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, was the first time an entire nation was being held to judicial account for the ultimate crime. It specifically demanded that Serbia hand over for trial Gen. Ratko Mladic, the general who oversaw the Bosnian Serb onslaught at Srebrenica, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Serbia has said it has been unable to arrest Mladic, although UN prosecutors say Mladic has evaded capture with the active help of Serb security forces. Similarly, NATO forces also have failed to find former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is believed hiding in the Serb sector of Bosnia. Both were indicted for genocide by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 1995. Key to the World Court's findings was its conclusion that no one in Serbia, or any official organ of the state, could be shown to have had the deliberate intention to "destroy in whole or in part" the Bosnian Muslim population - a critical element in the 1948 Genocide Convention. The judges found that Serbia, though it supported the Bosnian Serbs, fell short of having effective control over the Bosnian army and the paramilitary units that carried out the massacre. It also rejected Bosnia's argument that the accumulated pattern of atrocities during the war, fueled by Serb nationalism and driven by Serbian weapons and money, was tantamount to responsibility for genocide. Unusually for such an important case, the judges were in accord, voting overwhelmingly in unison on the various points of the decision with only one or two dissenters. The ruling could be important in Serbia's attempts to begin talks with the European Union on membership. A decision blaming Belgrade for genocide might have complicated entry negotiations, compounding its already rocky path because of its failure to capture Mladic. By 13-2, the court found that Serbia had the power to foresee and prevent the Srebrenica slaughter - the worst on European soil since World War II - and failed to use it. By 14-1 - only the Serbian judge against - demanded Mladic's transfer. The Serbian leaders "should have made the best effort within their power to try and prevent the tragic events then taking shape," in the UN enclave, the scale of which "might have been surmised," the ruling said. The decision also was a blow to the Bosnian Serb state known as Republika Srbska, which comprises the Serb-dominated half of Bosnia. Miroslav Mikes, a legal expert from the capital Banja Luka, said that "a part of history of the Bosnian Serb republic will be stained by the conclusion that part of its armed forces have committed genocide, and politicians will have to deal with that." In Brussels, Friso Roscam Abbing, EU Commission spokesman, urged both sides to respect the judgment "to ensure justice and enable reconciliation to start." The European Union has made Serbia's hopes for membership conditional on its cooperation in handing over Mladic and other fugitives. Reading a summary of the ruling for nearly three hours, court president Judge Rosalyn Higgins said it had been clear in Belgrade there was a serious risk of a massive slaughter in Srebrenica, when some 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed. But Serbia "has not shown that it took any initiative to prevent what happened or any action on its part to avert the atrocities which were being committed," said the judgment. However, the ruling did not specify specific action Serbia could have taken to preempt the massacre. Serbia's claim that it was powerless to prevent the massacres "hardly tallies with their known influence" over the Bosnian Serb army, said the ruling by the court, also known as the World Court. As she continued reading parts of the book-length judgment, Judge Higgins said the tribunal relied heavily on the findings of the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia, which has convicted two Bosnian Serb army officers on genocide-related charges for the deliberate slaughter of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims at the UN-protected enclave. "The acts committed at Srebrenica ... were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such, and accordingly ... these were acts of genocide" committed by Bosnian Serb forces, the judgment said. Despite the evidence of widespread killings, rape and torture elsewhere during the Bosnian war, especially in detention centers, the judges ruled that the criteria for genocide were met only in Srebrenica. In a key ruling at the outset, Higgins rejected Serbia's argument that the court had no jurisdiction in the case. She said the former Yugoslavia had the obligation to abide by the 1948 Genocide Convention throughout the war, even though its membership in the United Nations had been suspended in 1992. The World Court can only adjudicate disputes among UN member states. Bosnia submitted its genocide case to the court in 1993. Since then, the Yugoslavia tribunal, which judges individuals accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has sentenced two Bosnian Serb army officers for complicity in genocide or aiding and abetting genocide at Srebrenica. Then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic also was brought to trial on genocide charges but died in the UN jail in The Hague last March, just weeks before his four-year-long trial was due to end.

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