Croatia and Serbia did not commit genocide, court rules

International Court of Justice draws line between ethnic cleansing and genocide

Croatia’s justice minister Orsat Miljenic (left) shakes hands with his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selkovic prior to a session of the International Court of Justice in The Hague  yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Croatia’s justice minister Orsat Miljenic (left) shakes hands with his Serbian counterpart Nikola Selkovic prior to a session of the International Court of Justice in The Hague yesterday. Photograph: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

 

Another hurdle to improved relations between Croatia and Serbia was removed yesterday when the United Nations’ highest court ruled the two countries did not commit acts of genocide against each other during the wars after the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Croatia became the 28th state of the European Union in July 2013, and Serbia is a candidate country along with Macedonia, Montenegro, Iceland and Turkey. There were fears the reconciliation process might be delayed if either country was found guilty.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague found both sides had carried out violent acts during the wars that left more than 130,000 dead in the Balkans – but there was not sufficient evidence to show the “specific intent required for acts of genocide”.

The term “genocide” was coined in 1941 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, and the crime is notoriously hard to prove. ICJ president Judge Peter Tomka said that, in this case, the intent of “destroying a population in whole or in part” had not been shown to the court’s satisfaction.

Ethnic Croats

Slobodan Milosevic

Serbia responded with its counterclaim only in 2010, claiming ethnic Serbs were displaced when Croatia launched its 1995 military operation to recapture territory – and that was thrown out unanimously, suggesting that even Serbia’s delegated judge had ruled against it.

Much of the Croatian case focused on the town of Vukovar, destroyed by Serbs in 1991. Four years later, during “Operation Storm”, Croatian forces bombarded Krajina, occupied mainly by ethnic Serbs, forcing 200,000 to flee.

“What is generally called ethnic cleansing does not constitute genocide,” said Judge Tomka in the landmark ruling. “Acts of ethnic cleansing may be part of a genocidal plan – but only if there is an intention to physically destroy the target group.”

Peace and stability

Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic said he hoped the end of the case would lead to a “period of lasting peace and prosperity” in the region, while his justice minister, Nikola Selkovic, spoke of “a new, blank page” in relations with the Croatian capital, Zagreb.

Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic was less diplomatic but conciliatory: “We are not satisfied with the court’s ruling but we accept it in a civilised manner.”

In 2007, in a separate case brought by Bosnia, the ICJ ruled Serbia was not responsible for genocide there but had breached the genocide convention by failing to prevent the massacre in Srebrenica.

However, an appeals chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which also sits in The Hague, found unanimously in 2004 the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica did constitute genocide.

Former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic are both facing charges of masterminding the massacre.