Inside the marble corridors of the Peace Palace: Croatia v Serbia

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - 09:27

(Photo: UN Photo/CIJ-ICJ/Frank van Beek)

At the International Court of Justice in The Hague yesterday, two countries, Croatia and Serbia, heard that neither could be found to have committed genocide during the Balkans Wars of the 1990’s, during which thousands died or were forced to move. The judgment was the end of a 15-year process with claims and counter claims. Justice Hub was there. Here’s what happened.

By Janet Anderson

Outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague, no one wanted to stand around in the icy conditions. 

Inside, court officials were trying to explain what was happening to journalists. “It’s called a judgment, not a verdict…did you read our press releases?” said one on the phone. 

There’s a small but very fancy courtroom, with seats reserved for the legal teams and diplomats.  Only a few get physical access.  But it’s web-streamed across the world.

Even though there’s a sense of expectation, tension even, no one expected the court to suddenly up-end all the previous evidence heard at another Hague-based court, the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). There, the only genocide to be agreed on so far is the one at Srebrenica, in Bosnia. Leaders from Serbia and Croatia have never been charged with genocide in relation to what happened in Croatia in the early 1990’s.

The ICTY president Theodor Meron was in the audience. Details from the case files at his court were read out: people killed, war crimes committed, thousands forced to abandon their homes. 

Yes, said the ICJ, atrocities had happened, ethnic cleansing had all occurred. Even genocidal acts.

But crucially, on neither side was there evidence to show that there was an intention to destroy in whole or in part – the precise wording of the 1948 Genocide Convention – another group.

It was two hours of heavy, precise legal argument, and then the judgment was distributed.

Inside the marble corridors of the Peace Palace, home to the ICJ, the main language to be heard was BCS – an acronym for the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages.  But those thronging these halls weren’t victims. They're the press corps. 

This is a live political issue all over the Balkans. The way that politicians have appraoched this case makes it feel like the 1990’s war to split up the former Yugoslavia is still being fought by other means. 

After the judgment journalists listened to each side give their spin.

Serbia said that it was now time to move on. Croatia said that senior military leaders still needed to be put on trial. 

So, who won?

Earlier in the day there was a tweet from a British chamber of lawyers involved with both legal teams. 

Maybe, in the end, only the lawyers win cases like this. 


(Photos in article: Janet Anderson / Justice Hub)


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