Not guilty

Published : Apr 06, 2007 00:00 IST

The International Court of Justice clears Serbia of charges of genocide in Bosnia, but the country faces the prospect of Kosovo's separation.

THERE is good news for the beleaguered people of Serbia: the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in a historic decision in the last week of February, absolved Serbia of committing acts of genocide against Bosnia during the civil conflict that engulfed the Balkan region in the 1990s. There is bad news too: the United Nations has caved in to the demand of the Kosovo separatists, and it is only a matter of time before Kosovo, a province of Serbia, becomes a sovereign state. Last year, Montenegro officially broke away from Serbia.

The 15-member ICJ Bench stated in its ruling: "Serbia has not been complicit in genocide in violation of its obligation under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide." The court, however, ruled that Serbia could have done more to prevent it.

The relief among Serbians was palpable. If the ICJ had given a guilty verdict, Serbia would have gone down in history as the first state to be officially tainted with the tag of being genocidal. Besides, the economically straitjacketed state would have had to pay billions of dollars to Bosnia in compensation.

Bosnia had sued Serbia in 1993 for planning, abetting and committing genocide. More than 100,000 former citizens of Yugoslavia were killed in the civil conflict that lasted from 1992 to 95. Bosnian Muslims accounted for the majority of the casualties. Thousands of Serbs and Croats also perished in the conflict. The most horrific incident during the conflict was the one that happened in Srebrenica. More than 7,000 Muslim males were killed when the town fell into the hands of Bosnian Serb forces. The ICJ has characterised that incident as an act of genocide. The Dutch peacekeepers deployed in the area did not intervene to stop the massacre.

The authorities in Belgrade have always insisted that the Bosnian Serb forces were acting independently and that it was an internal war between Bosnia's three main ethnic groups. The two Bosnian Serb leaders, Ratco Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, who have been held responsible for these crimes, are still in hiding. The ICJ has called on Serbia to cooperate in transferring Mladic, Karadzic and other individuals accused of genocide to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague. The Tribunal, which works in close cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), seems to be still pursuing its case based on the presumption that the unfortunate events in Bosnia were the result of a "joint criminal enterprise" between Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade to establish a "greater Serbia" through genocide and military intervention. The ICJ judgment has basically rebutted this conspiracy theory.

Importantly, it is a vindication of sorts for the late Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who spent the last years of his life incarcerated in a Dutch prison on charges of instigating genocide in Bosnia. Up to his death in his lonely prison cell, Milosevic had vehemently protested his innocence and characterised his trial as an illustration of "victor's justice". Milosevic, in his defence, had argued convincingly that it was the West and not the Yugoslav state that was guilty of crimes against humanity.

After the end of the Cold War, the West had turned its attention to Yugoslavia and plotted and abetted its eventual dismemberment. In the 70-day war that NATO launched against the country in 1999, cluster bombs and other banned weapons were used, and civilian targets, such as radio and television stations, were attacked. The bombing made the Danube un-navigable for years. NATO planes specifically targeted bridges across the river.

In a final desperate attempt to keep the remnants of the Yugoslav Republic intact, Milosevic stood up to the West. Earlier, he had played a big role in facilitating the Dayton Accord, which led to the cessation of the Bosnian conflict and the creation of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milosevic was briefly hailed as a statesman and peacemaker by the Western media. It was Milosevic's determination to see that Kosovo and Montenegro stayed in the Federation that led to his demonisation in the Western media.

Ruth Wedgwood, Professor of International Law in the Johns Hopkins University, said in an article in The New York Times that the ICJ's judgment was a "posthumous acquittal of Milosevic for genocide in Bosnia". The academic is no sympathiser of the late Yugoslav leader and is critical of the ICJ's judgment. However, in her efforts to highlight the shortcomings of the ICJ, Ruth Wedgwood has observed that the court's war crimes prosecutor dismissed Serbia's complaints against the NATO campaign on the grounds that Yugoslavia no longer existed as a country or as a member of the U.N. and, therefore, had no plaintiff's right of access to the ICJ.

The main purpose of NATO's attack on Yugoslavia was to set a precedent in international politics, that is, overriding national sovereignty and giving international sanction for military attacks on states using human rights abuse as a pretext. The NATO offensive was the precursor to the Iraq invasion of 2003. The West has now focussed its attention on the Darfur region in Sudan, conveniently forgetting the fact that more civilians have been killed in Iraq under American occupation than in the ongoing conflict in Darfur.

John Laughland, author of Travesty: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the Corruption of International Justice, recently wrote that "only when that hideous strength which flows from the hypocrisy of intervention is sapped, will the world stand any chance of returning to lawfulness and peace".

There is speculation in sections of the Western media that the ICJ has let off Serbia lightly in order to soften the blow that awaits it. The province of Kosovo, which Serbs consider their spiritual heartland, is soon to be detached from what little is left of the original Yugoslav Federation. All the other parts of Yugoslavia, which broke away, were republics forming part of the larger Federation. Kosovo is only a province of Serbia. As the results of the recent elections in Serbia showed, most Serbs believe that Kosovo is an integral part of their country and that any move to give it independence would amount to the violation of Serbia's territorial integrity. Since 1999, the U.N. has been administering Kosovo, with NATO peacekeepers enforcing the law.

Kosovo Albanians constitute more than 90 per cent of the population in the province. They have made it clear that they will not settle for anything less than full independence. The major reason for the NATO bombing was Milosevic's reluctance to give in to the demands of Kosovo Albanians. The U.N.'s point man in Kosovo, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, has presented his plan for an "independent" Kosovo though no time frame has been specified. Under his plan, independence is the only option being given to Kosovo.

The majority Albanians in the province will not be allowed either to merge with Albania or form a new Federation with the Albanian-dominated parts of Macedonia, thus theoretically forestalling the creation of a Muslim-dominated Greater Albania in the Balkans. The newly elected Serbian Parliament has rejected Ahtisaari's plan. Washington and London have, however, endorsed the plan for an independent Kosovo. This could lead to the majority of European Union members recognising an independent Kosovo.

The Serbian leadership hopes that the inevitable could be delayed for some more time if Russia uses its veto in the U.N. Security Council. Senior Russian government officials have said that an independent Kosovo would set a precedent. They fear that minorities living in the Russian Federation, especially those in the Caucasus region, will demand the replication of the Kosovo formula.

The majority-Muslim Kosovars seem determined to declare independence at the earliest. The West will seek to compensate Serbia for the loss of Kosovo by hastening the pace of its integration into the E.U. and into NATO. Western companies have already made huge investments in the Serbian economy.

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