‘Balkan wars’ move to UN court

Battlefields are no longer the place to solve conflicts in the Balkans. In recent days and weeks, several bilateral conflicts involving countries in the region, which are also hindering their EU accession prospects, are moving to more dignified surroundings: the International Court of Justice at the UN.

In a very short timeframe, several conflicts between Balkan countries have been referred to the UN’s highest court. 

In the first of a recent string of lawsuits, Serbia tested the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence before the Hague Tribunal in October (EURACTIV 09/10/08), while on Monday (17 November), Macedonia instituted proceedings against Greece after its neighbour long-time foe had blocked its NATO bid over a name dispute (EURACTIV 02/04/08). 

Yesterday (18 November), Croatia won the right to sue Serbia for genocide after the court ruled that it had the legal power to decide on the case. In return, Serbia indicated that it would sue Croatia for war crimes. 

However different the cases may be, they mark a shift from the previous recourse to force. Moreover, the court may offer solutions to unsolved bilateral conflicts, which are blocking the EU accession process of several countries in the region. 

EU accession taken as hostage 

Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, recently expressed regret over this practice, adding that he would prefer to see bilateral issues solved in a bilateral framework (EURACTIV 06/11/08). 

Meanwhile, the EU enlargement process is dependent on another tribunal, also based in the Hague – the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia). The Netherlands is insisting that the accession process of Serbia be kept on hold until general Ratko Mladic – the most wanted war criminal from the Bosnia war – is arrested by the Belgrade authorities. 

However, Serbian authorities say they have no idea where Mladic is. The UN court’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz has indicated that the ICTY has enjoyed productive cooperation with Serbia in the last few months, especially since the Serbian authorities arrested and extradited war criminal Radovan Karadzic to the Hague (EURACTIV 30/07/08). 

Except Mladic, only one war criminal, Goran Hadzic, remains at large. Recently-appointed ICTY President Patrick Robinson said the tribunal would not be closed before Mladic and Hadzic were brought before justice. 

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN). It was established in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and began work in April 1946. 

The seat of the court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands). Of the six principal organs of the United Nations, it is the only one not located in New York . 

The court's role is to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by states and to give jugements or advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by authorised United Nations organs and specialised agencies. 

The ICG jugements are legally binding upon States. Advisory opinions are without binding effect, but nevertheless remains that the authority and prestige attached to the court's advisory opinions, means that its decisions are often sanctioned as such by international law. 

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