The International Court of Justice in The Hague will announce tomorrow whether Croatia was right in accusing neighbouring Serbia of genocide. And whether Serbia was right in its counter claim that Croatia had also committed genocide. The issue dates from the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s when the former Yugoslavia fell apart. Each state that emerged, including Croatia and Serbia, were fighting for territory and the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ was born as war swept across the region and minorities were displaced and, it’s alleged, in some cases massacred.
Academic researcher Iva Vukusic explains what the rulings from the ICJ will mean.
Q: What’s this all about?
It concerns two countries Croatia and Serbia and the period between 1991 and 1995 and the territory of Croatia, a part of which was claimed by the Serbs. These two countries asked the ICJ to decide if genocide had or had not been committed in that period in that territory, against Croats and Serbs, respectively.
Q: Croatia brought the case. What’s it been arguing?
So Croatia is basically arguing that Serbian forces committed genocide especially at the beginning of the 1990’s when Belgrade-backed troops were attacking parts of the country.
Q: And Serbia?
Serbia alleged that Croatia committed genocide against the Serbs in 1995 during a military operation called Operation Storm that took back Serb-held territory.
Q: So it’s both sides alleging the other committing genocide?
Yes and defending themselves against the same accusations.
Q: Who started it? No, let me rephrase that: who brought the case first?
It was Croatia in 1999 and years later in 2010 Serbia reacted with a counter suit.
Q: Will the judges pronounce on both accusations at the same time?
Yes. And it should take a few hours because it will be quite detailed.
Q: Why would Croatia bring a case to the ICJ?
The ICJ never takes a case like this up on its own. A country has to initiate the process. This court only deals with states – like Croatia and Serbia. Not any particular person. It’s not like all the other courts where you can have a hundred individuals from one county convicted, but those verdicts do not mean that a country is responsible for something.
Q: The case is about the Genocide Convention, which both countries signed up to. What does the convention say?
It provides the basic definition genocide. Genocide can be difficult to prove with individuals, because not only do prosecutors have to prove that the act is genocide but also that the person concerned intended to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. So in criminal proceedings that isn’t easy. The ICJ hasn’t dealt with the issue extensively. But criminal courts like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have.
Q: But there was a previous judgment on genocide?
Yes, and for this region too. It was in 2007 when the ICJ ruled on the case Bosnia brought against Serbia. And the ICJ confirmed that genocide had taken place in Srebrenica. The Court ruled that Serbia violated the Genocide Convention by failing to prevent the genocide from occurring. So this time it will be interesting to see whether the court has a different opinion on what genocide is or isn’t and how it looks at different circumstances and events and interprets them.
Q: When you mention genocide and the former Yugoslavia, most people think of Srebrenica in Bosnia.
That’s the incident that has been found to have been genocide at the ICTY. Several cases dealt with Srebrenica. That court has found several people guilty of committing genocide, of aiding and abetting or carrying out the killing of about 8,000 Bosnian boys and men. It was very specific: it took about a week, was very organised, needed transportation, shooting squads and massacres on an industrial scale.
Q: So is the ICTY connected to this case and this court?
These are two independent institutions. The ICJ is not tied to the jurisprudence of the ICTY. But the counsels for both countries have cited the ICTY’s jurisprudence and its decisions and judgments in cases which had dealt the same geographic space and time.
Q: Has the ICTY ever ruled that genocide was committed in Croatia?
No, the ICTY prosecution never prosecuted anyone for genocide in the territory of Croatia. That’s one of the things that the lawyers before the ICJ have brought up as part of their arguments. Each side has used the fact that no such charges had been brought for 1991 Serb attacks on Croatia nor for 1995 Croatia’s Operation Storm to defend their states from the other’s accusations.
Q: So what kinds of incidents have lawyers for each state suggested might have been genocide?
You have specific attacks on towns like Vukovar and incidents like a mass killing at Ovcara where Croatians were targeted by the Serbs. And after Operation Storm around 200,000 Serbs were displaced and many killed. But none of the incidents are really comparable with Srebrenica.
Q: What decision might the ICJ make?
I don’t want to speculate. But I’m sure the judges will conclude that horrible crimes were committed against members of both groups. Many analysts expect the judgment to stop short of calling these crimes genocide.
Q: is there a lot of interest in this case in the region?
Well, media coverage tends to be there on the opening day but, in between when the substance happens, there’s not a lot of interest. Disappointingly politicians and even members of the judiciary have shown very little understanding of what this case is about. The media in both countries has been approaching this very much like a football game, in terms of winning or losing and interpreting in such simplistic ways that it almost loses any point. I would hope it would contribute to a discussion of policy. But what we see is a very black and white narrative – those guys are bad and we’re good. The monolithic understanding of what happened in these conflicts doesn’t seem to be changing significantly. And the political elites are not helping much either. It’s still the rhetoric from the 1990’s. Sadly, this is another opportunity for dialogue and a critical look into their own behavior during the war that both Croatia and Serbia have missed.
Sergii Fedko is a cartoonist who works for the Cartoon Movement.