Global Policy Forum

World Court Judges Deliberate in 13-Year-Old


By Arthur Max

Associated Press
May 9, 2006

Legal arguments in Bosnia's landmark genocide suit against Serbia concluded Tuesday at the International Court of Justice, with each country claiming a ruling in its favor would help heal the wounds of war.

After listening to nine weeks of arguments and witnesses, the 16 judges of the world court retired to a horseshoe-shaped table to begin deliberations. The court must first rule on whether it has jurisdiction. If it decides that it has, a judgment in the 13-year-old case may take many months. The closing arguments by Serbia-Montenegro ended oral pleadings that began in February. But that was only the final stage in a suit Bosnia originally filed in 1993 while fighting was still raging among the small nations that emerged from the crumbling former state of Yugoslavia.

Bosnia is seeking compensation for the loss of life and property during the 1992-95 war, when an estimated 200,000 people were killed and when entire Muslim towns and villages were devastated. No figure was named, but Serbia could be obliged to pay billions of dollars if found guilty. It was the first time a state had been accused of what has been called the crime of all crimes. Croatia also has filed a genocide case against Serbia, which is pending on the world court's docket.

The case is equally daunting for the legal and moral precedents it would set. A conviction would lead to "the stigmatization of the (Serb) population and would have lengthy historical consequences," said Serbia's chief representative, Radoslav Stojanovic. It also would worsen relations between Serbia and Bosnia, Stojanovic told the black-robed judges. "We request the court to rule in favor of reconciliation and not to rule for a continuation of conflict," he said.

For Bosnia, delegate Phon van den Biesen said earlier this month a ruling that Serbia committed genocide "will be an important step towards true peace, which will, indeed, become more substantive when justice is seen to be done."

The case is one of the most complex in the 60-year history of the court, created after World War II to settle disputes among U.N. members. It does not deal with criminal cases against individuals. The court must first decide whether it is empowered to rule in the suit, and only then to judge whether genocide occurred and, if so, whether the state of Serbia could be held accountable. Each of those questions is a legal minefield.

Belgrade argued that the court lacks jurisdiction since Serbia was not a full U.N. member, from the 1992 disintegration of Yugoslavia until Serbia-Montenegro was admitted to the U.N. in 2000. Bosnia countered that Serbia, then called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, had claimed to be the rightful successor state to the unraveled Yugoslav federation, and that it cannot pick and choose when it wants legitimacy.

In previous cases, the world court has issued contradictory rulings on whether it had jurisdiction over Serbia between 1992 and 2000 – and it is not bound in this case by any of them. Neither is it bound by verdicts handed down by the U.N. Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a separate court that also sits in The Hague for prosecuting individual war crimes suspects. During the arguments and rebuttals at the world court, Serbia did not deny that Bosnia had been a victim of atrocities, but said it was not responsible for actions committed before the democratic revolution in 2000.

"We never sought to defend the deplorable regime of Slobodan Milosevic, to which all the representatives before you during these proceedings were opposed," Stojanovic told the judges.

The two states clashed over whether the carnage in Bosnia amounted to genocide, a legal term that requires a deliberate intention to wipe out a specific ethnic or religious group. Bosnia said the murder, terrorization and expulsion of Muslims was planned, organized and financed in Belgrade, and established a pattern of behavior that was tantamount to genocide.

"It is the accumulation of solitary crimes – the dreadful repetition of evil acts – that emerges finally, clearly, as the super crime of genocide," said Bosnia's U.S. advocate Thomas Franck earlier this month. But Serbian delegate Sasa Obradovic argued Monday that genocide "cannot be a sum of random criminal activities, but a specific crime with a specific mental element."

More Information on International Justice
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