Global Policy Forum

UN Court Gives Landmark Ruling

Agence France Presse
February 26, 2007

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled today that the 1995 massacre of about 8 000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was genocide, as it considered the question of Serbian responsibility. It is the first time that the ICJ, the United Nation's (UN's) top court set up to deal with disputes between states, has ruled in a genocide case. Genocide was made an international crime under a 1948 treaty.

Bosnia has accused Serbia of masterminding the widespread "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the brutal inter-ethnic war in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995. The Bosnian government has demanded reparations while Serbia has insisted the ICJ has no jurisdiction in the matter. If Serbia is found guilty it would be a moral victory for Bosnia and could lead to reparations amounting to millions of euros.

The 16-judge ICJ panel is expected to take several hours to read the verdict, which will be final with no room for appeal. In the initial part of its ruling, it said the massacre at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia was an act of genocide but that other mass killings during the war were not. It said Serbia had made "considerable military and financial support" available to the Bosnian Serb leadership during the war but the court did not make any immediate comment about its alleged involvement in genocide. Proving genocide requires establishing intent to destroy a group, in whole or in part, as well as demonstrating that genocide acts such as the Srebrenica massacre took place.

"Whatever the court may rule, Bosnia and Hercegovina vs Serbia and Montenegro is a historic case because there has been no previous ruling," said Geraldine Mattioli, an expert with the Human Rights Watch group. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the UN's ad hoc war crimes court, has already ruled that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide and has convicted two former Bosnian Serb military officers for aiding and abetting the slaughter.

But today's ruling will be the first from an international court on whether the genocide was the policy of the government of Serbia, a former Yugoslav republic neighbouring Bosnia. Serbia under then-president Slobodan Milosevic was the main backer of ethnic Serb forces in Bosnia, and Milosevic is seen as the architect of their campaign to forcibly expel non-Serbs from swathes of the Bosnian countryside. He died in UN custody last year before any verdict could be reached on the genocide and war crimes charges against him in the ICTY. He maintained his innocence to the end, saying genocide was not the policy of his regime.

Legal experts say that proving Serbia as a state or Milosevic as its president had the intent to commit genocide in Bosnia is extremely difficult. "Even if they rule Serbia was involved in the war and that acts of genocide were committed you can say that was genocide committed by (Bosnian Serb army commander) Ratko Mladic, but it will be harder to say it was committed by Milosevic," said international law expert Heikelina Verrijn Stuart.

Bosnians were bracing for the court's decision on an issue that continues to fuel inter-ethnic hatred across the former Yugoslavia. Muslims and Croats accuse Belgrade of failing to own up to the crimes committed in the nationalist cause of a "Greater Serbia" in the 1990s, while Serbia argues that all parties to the conflict were guilty of atrocities.

Some analysts believe that whatever the court's decision, it will do nothing to mend Bosnia's multi-ethnic fabric. "Whatever the verdict, one of the sides will be dissatisfied which will further alienate the people in Bosnia and reinforce two conflicting views about the country's future," political analyst Tanja Topic said.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on the International Court of Justice
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia


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