Global Policy Forum

World Court Clash Reopens Wounds


By David Vujanovic

Kuwait Times
November 20, 2008

Croatia and Serbia have reopened old wounds by trading accusations of war crimes before the world court that mark the worst point in their ties since Slobodan Milosevic's ouster, analysts said yesterday. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the UN's highest court, decided Tuesday to hear a Croatian genocide claim against Serbia, which hit back with a threat to lodge a counter-accusation of ethnic cleansing.

Zagreb said yesterday it would press on with its ICJ case despite the legal backlash by Serbia, which says its charges will even include crimes by Croatia's World War II pro-Nazi regime. "Serbia must face up to its past. We are oriented towards our European future and our position is already known," Croatian foreign ministry spokesman Mario Dragun told AFP.

Ties between Zagreb and Belgrade had gradually improved since Croatia's 1991-1995 independence war, when the Croatian army fought rebel Serbs backed by the hardline government of late Serbian president Milosevic. But the upshot of the ICJ legal proceedings was likely to be negative for both sides, which aspire to join the European Union in coming years, analysts warned.

I think that the Croatian charges and (Serbian) threat of a counter accusation is a defeat for politics," former Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic said yesterday. "If there had been political will to overcome the problems of the past... it wouldn't have come to this," Zivkovic, a businessman and commentator known for his fierce anti-nationalism, told B92 television.

Another observer warned the developments would only serve to heighten tensions in the Balkans, already close to boiling point over Kosovo's secession from Serbia in February and rising nationalism in Bosnia. "The legal charges and threatened counter-suit will aggravate relations" between Croatia and Serbia, said Sasa Popov of the Igman Initiative, a group of non-governmental organizations set up to encourage dialogue.

In Tuesday's ruling, an ICJ panel of 17 judges dismissed a Serbian challenge to the court's competence to hear Croatia's complaint, a date for which will now be set and may take years to reach finality. Serbia, which previously sought to resolve the matter diplomatically, had argued the court had no jurisdiction to hear the case over alleged crimes committed during the Croatian war. "Unfortunately, I have to say I fear an out-of-court settlement isn't possible," Goran Svilanovic, an analyst and former Serbian foreign minister, told B92 television.

Serbia's legal representative at the ICJ, Tibor Varadi, said Tuesday that Belgrade had been preparing a case against Croatia ever since Milosevic was overthrown in October 2000. Announcing Belgrade's counter-claim, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said: "We will look at all events during the 20th century, events during World War II, during the (pro-Nazi Ustasha regime of the) Independent State of Croatia." "We'll turn to history to establish the truth for the sake of our common future in the European Union," Jeremic said on national television.

According to the United Nations, some 280,000 ethnic Serbs fled Croatia during and after the country's 1991-1995 war. The refugees took flight mostly in a massive convoy that resulted from a Croatian military operation dubbed "Storm" to retake territory held by rebel Serbs. Around 130,000 Serb refugees have returned to Croatia. Resolving the fate of the rest of them is a major precondition for Zagreb's bid to enter the European Union by at least 2011.

The analyst Popov said the Igman Institute, which comprises 140 Balkan NGOs, regretted the worsening relations between Croatia and Serbia. "We are of the opinion... that problems must be resolved through talks. Both countries must confront their past, which are not that glorious. Lots has been done which is not becoming of civilized states," he told AFP. The ICJ ruling paves the way for only the second genocide case to be brought before the court. In the previous claim by Bosnia, the ICJ cleared Belgrade of genocide last year, but found Serbia failed to act to prevent the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 8,000 Muslims.



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