The UN’s highest court ruled yesterday that neither Croatia nor Serbia committed genocide against each other’s populations during the Balkan wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Peter Tomka, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), said crimes had been committed by both sides’ forces during the conflict, but that the intent to commit genocide – by “destroying a population in whole or in part” – had not been proven against either.
The United Nations’ tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which is also based in The Hague, has long since ruled genocide was committed in Bosnia, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed when the UN “safe haven” of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.
But despite widespread atrocities against all sides, no court has ruled that ethnic Croats or Serbs were victims of genocide. Recent acquittals of suspects at the Yugoslav tribunal stoked anger in the two countries. Croatia alleged Serbia’s destruction of towns and expulsion of ethnic Croats in Slavonia amounted to genocide. In turn, Serbia accused Croatia of genocide over the expulsion of Serbs from Krajina.
In a ruling from 2007 in a case brought by Bosnia in 2007, the same court found Serbia was not responsible for genocide but had breached the genocide convention by failing to prevent the massacre in Srebrenica.
Fighting in Croatia from 1991-95 left about 10,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.
Yesterday’s decision was not unexpected, as the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, a separate court also based in The Hague, has never charged any Serbs or Croats with genocide in one another’s territory. Croatia brought the case to the world court in 1999, asking judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation. Serbia later filed a counter-claim, alleging genocide by Croat forces during the 1995 “Operation Storm” military campaign.
Rejecting both cases, Mr Tomka stressed many crimes happened during fighting between Serbia and Croatia and urged Belgrade and Zagreb to work together towards a lasting reconciliation.
“The court encourages the parties to continue their co-operation with a view to offering appropriate reparation to the victims of such violations,” Mr Tomka told a packed Great Hall of Justice at the court’s headquarters, the Peace Palace.
Decisions by the ICJ are final and legally binding.
Mr Tomka said crimes including the killings and mass expulsions by both sides constituted elements of the crime of genocide, but the judges ruled that neither Serbia nor Croatia carried out the crimes with the “specific intent” to destroy targeted civilian populations.