As widely expected, the International Court of Justice Tuesday (3 February) rejected the genocide lawsuits Croatia and Serbia launched against one another. Observers turned their attention to the vast sums of money wasted in hopeless proceedings. EURACTIV Serbia reports.
The Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that both sides had committed war crimes but stopped short of qualifying them as genocide.
Neither Serbian nor Croatian officials were fully satisfied with the ruling but said they will respect the decision, which is binding anyway.
Analysts said the verdict was likely to fan nationalist rhetoric on both sides, adding that relations between the two countries’ will depend primarily on politicians from both sides. The analysts mostly said that this decision had been expected, and raised the question of the money the two countries had spent on the proceedings.
The UN’s highest court found that the atrocities committed by the two sides had not been carried out with “genocidal intent,” i.e. with the aim of destroying the Croats or the Serbs as ethnic groups, which is a necessary condition to qualify a killing as “genocide”.
The ICJ dismissed the Croatian claim with 15 votes in favour, while Judge Cancado of Trinidad and Budimir Vukas, Croatia’s “ad hoc” representative, were against. Serbia’s counterclaim was rejected unanimously.
In making their decision, the judges relied on the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which had led proceedings against the main participants of the 1990s war. In that sense, they also pointed out that no one, not even former Yugoslav president Slobodan Miloševi?, had been tried for genocide in Croatian territory.
The ICJ verdict is binding and cannot be appealed.
The verdict wrapped up the case Zagreb filed in 1999 against Belgrade, accusing Serbian forces of genocide allegedly committed in Croatian territory. In 2010, Serbia filed a counter-lawsuit against Croatia for allegedly committing genocide against the Serbs in the Kninska Krajina region, during and after the Operation Storm, in 1995.
In total, some 20,000 people lost their lives in the conflict between Serbia and Croatia after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, between 1991 and 1995.
Crimes without genocidal intent
As far as Croatia’s lawsuit is concerned, the ICJ, basing itself on ICTY verdicts, confirmed that the Yugoslav People’s Army and other Serbian forces had committed serious crimes against Croats in the regions of eastern and western Slavonia, Banija, Kordun, Lika and Kninska Krajina.
However, it said there was no genocidal intent, rebutting Croatia’s demands. The ruling was based on the ICTY verdict that previously acquitted General Ante Gotovina, the Croat commander during Operation Storm.
According to the ICJ ruling, murders against civilians were indeed committed as part of a joint criminal enterprise for the purpose of permanently removing the Croatian population from one third of Croatia’s territory, which would then be added to a unified Serbian state.
But as ICJ President Peter Tomka said, Croatia failed to prove that genocide had been committed, which is why Serbia could not be found guilty on any count.
Similarly, the ICJ dismissed Serbia’s counterclaim, saying it had failed to prove that Croatian forces had deliberately intended to destroy the Serbs in Kninska Krajina. But the unselective and deliberate shelling of Serb towns in Krajina during Operation Storm could not be proven, meaning the case was turned down.
The verdict did however determine that “a significant number” of Serbs had “fled” Krajina s a direct consequence of Croatian shelling. The Croatian leadership was aware that an exodus would take place and even considered it desirable, the court found.
Turning to the immediate future of Serbia-Croatia relations, the court urged both sides to cooperate in solving missing persons cases and other pending problems of mutual importance.
Most political analysts agree that future bilateral relations will depend on the goodwill of politicians, point out that the court decision may initially fan nationalistic passions.
They also observed that the court decision had been widely expected and questioned the point of spending money on such proceedings.
Tim Judah, a British expert on the Balkans, estimates that Croatia has spent €3.2 million on the proceedings, while Serbia spent €800,000, even though it was clear to both sides that the crimes in question, as horrible as they were, did not amount to genocide.
Tibor Varadi, a Serbian international law expert, said that even the legal teams had been aware that both suits would be dismissed.
Serbian Justice Minister happy, President unhappy
Serbian Justice Minister Nikola Selakovi? said the ICJ ruling had been expected and that Serbia was satisfied.
“The Court found that no genocide had been committed by the Republic of Serbia. That fulfilled our expectations,” he told reporters in The Hague after the reading of the verdict, as reported by N1 TV.
Selakovic also said the ICJ had rejected a claim by Croatia, that the Serbs from Krajina had left Croatia at an appeal by the Serbian authorities, and that it was confirmed that their departure had been the result of the military operation Storm.
He expects that after the verdict, Croatia will also start treating its Serb citizens from Krajina as missing persons.
Selakovic further said the Serbs from Krajina expected to see “a court epilogue of the crimes committed against their compatriots, the members of their families, fellow citizens and neighbours”.
On the other hand, Serbian President Tomislav Nikoli? said the ruling had not fulfilled expectations regarding Croatia’s responsibility. He said ttht during the Meda?ki Džep operation in 1993, the Croatian army killed all inhabitants of one part of the Lika region.
“From the standpoint of international law and according to the practice of the International Court of Justice, that is, as far as I know, irrefutable evidence of the act of genocide,” he said.
The president added that Serbia would respect the decision, that it advocates good relations with neighbors, but that the ruling is still a step forward as the genocide suit against Serbia has been rejected.
Ahead of the decision, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? said the decision “is perhaps one of the most important events in the bilateral relations between Serbia and Croatia,” because it could be an opportunity for the two countries to leave the past behind.
Croatia dissatisfied, will respect verdict
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovi? expressed dissatisfaction with the rejection of Croatia’s genocide claim.
“The Croatian suit has unfortunately been rejected, but all that we know happened – serious war crimes and ethnic cleansing – was determined,” Milanovi? stressed in a statement to reporters.
He pointed out that more than 20 years had passed since the events, that Croatia was now a member of the EU, that it won the war and that it now had an opportunity to move forward and build its present in the company of the most developed states of the world.
“In that sense, we wish Serbia all the best. We will not abandon our demands to determine the fate of the missing and the return of cultural treasure,” said the prime minister.
He emphasied that Croatia must respect the ICJ ruling and accept it in a civilised way.
Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljeni? said in The Hague that he was unhappy with the rejection of Croatia’s genocide suit, although the International Court of Justice had confirmed that the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian forces had committed an act of aggression against Croatia.
“Everything was led and organised out of Serbia,” Miljeni? said.
Reflecting on claims that operation Storm in 1995 had not been legitimate, he said that it was “a legitimate military operation with the goal of liberating occupied areas,” but that the operation had come with its share of bad things that needed to be prosecuted.
Miljeni? said that the verdict would not change relations with Serbia, adding that neighbours had to cooperate with each other.
Outgoing Croatian President Ivo Josipovi? reacted in a similar manner, saying that the decision had been expected and that Croatia cannot be completely satisfied.
“The Court has said decisively and clearly that Croatia cannot be considered a state that committed genocide,” Josipovi? stressed in his first reaction to the ICJ ruling, adding that this eliminates the ideas that Croatia was created on a foundation of genocide.
When asked how the verdict would affect the relationship between Serbia and Croatia, Josipovi? said there would probably be intense reactions from the media, but that it is the politicians’ job to build good relations.