The ICJ’s conservative stance in the ruling on Serbian and Croatian claims of genocide

A heated topic of discussion in the Balkans nowadays is the final ruling of the International Court of Justice, which is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations (UN), on 3 February, 2015 to dismiss the genocide claims of Croatia and Serbia.

In short, Croatia was the first to file a claim against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in 1999. Yet seeing that FRY consisted of the two states known today as Montenegro and Serbia, after Montenegro declared independence in 2006, Serbia was left as the sole defendant state for the remaining duration of the case. Nonetheless, Croatia resumed legal action against Serbia, alleging that it had violated the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of the Genocide during the War between Serbs and Croats before 27 April, 1992. In response, Serbia filed a counter claim on 4 January, 2010 against Croatia, challenging that systematic genocide was in fact actualized by Croatians in Kninska Krajina, a region that was inhabited by a Serbian majority. Conversely, Croatia claimed that Serbia committed genocide in Vukovar, where a majority of Croats had lived during the War of Yugoslavia.

After the announcement that the ICJ had dismissed the claims made by both parties, the two countries’ governments issued statements on the decision. Namely, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic specified that the decision was on the one hand a total disappointment, but on the other hand the rejection of the Serbian counter-claim was satisfactory. Nonetheless, the Croatian government announced that it would not give up pursuing the rights of Croatians on topics such as the issue of missing persons, the return of stolen cultural heritage, etc. By contrast, the Serbian authorities were rather pleased with the ICJ’s decision stating, “It will positively affect the future of Serbia“. Furthermore, President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic declared that “Croatia and Serbia would resolve their issues together in order to bring the region to peace and prosperity“. In this way, it can be said the relations between Serbia and Croatia will not break down due to the decision as both sides have already accepted it in a civilized manner.

Indeed, both sides failed to adequately prove their claims according to the framework of the ICJ’s definition of genocide. Here, genocide is defined in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group“ by way of “killing members of the group“; “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group“; “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part“; “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group“; or “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group“. With these parameters in mind, Serbia and Croatia’s cases were based upon claims that did not consider the historical implications of the case or the shifting borders of the times. Thus, based on a lack of evidence, the ICJ decided that genocide was not explicitly committed by one side or the other.

To better understand the issue, one should take a closer look at the breakup of Yugoslavia. The roles of Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic during the period of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) were of great importance. Considering the economic hardship, rising nationalism, and the sense of Serbian hegemony by way of Milosevic rule, Slovenes and Croats thought the best solution was to secede from the SFRY with a vote. Throughout the process the Croatian and Serbian sides became engulfed in a vicious circle that was characterized by the Serbs fearing the revival of the Ustasha, and the Croats fearing the revival of Serbian hegemony. In addition to the poor economic circumstances of the times, this endless loop of understanding reinforced the growing strength of both the Croatian and Serbian nationalist movements. In this context, attempts for secession were kicked off with the fiery rhetoric of self-determination movements. In this vein, the Republic of Serbian Krajina (Republika Srpska Krajina) had established itself as a self-proclaimed independent territory within the Republic of Croatia during the War employing Milosevic’s argument that “All Serbs should live in Serbia“, a discourse which represented the idea of “Greater Serbia“. Respectively, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) was reconfigured, its ranks were filled with Serbs, and its attacks against Croatians intensified.

It’s a well-known fact that the United Nations tried to prevent the conflict, especially through the efforts of Representative Cyrus Vance and General Secretary Boutros Ghali. During the conflict, however, the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) did not apply physical force, either by way of deploying armed forces or by conducting air strikes. This owed in large part to international reluctance to get involved and the unpredictability of the conflict itself. UNPROFOR operated primarily in the United Nations Protected Area (UNPA), consisting of East Slavonia, West Slavonia, and Krajina, where its mission was not only to keep the peace but also to ensure the safe access of migrants to the UNPA. The presence of UNPROFOR in the UNPA facilitated the withdrawal of JNA troops from these areas. Throughout this period, UNPROFOR’s mission was extended from time to time and the body was reorganized to include the United Nations Confidence Restoration Operation in Croatia (UNCRO) and the United Nations Preventive Deployment (UNPREDEP). After UNCRO’s mission was concluded with the Basic Agreement on Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, and Western Sirmium, the United Nations Transitional Administration in Eastern Slavonia, Baranja, Western Sirmium (UNTAES) was established in cooperation with the UNCHR to contribute to peace and security in the region. Here, the United Nations Civilian Police Support Group (UNPSG) and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) worked together for a period of time with the latter’s role in ensuring security eventually being increased by the UN. The actual performances of all organs are still contested due to the fact that they failed to disarm the UNPA and thus were not so successful in providing favorable conditions for the return of refugees to the Area.

The ICJ’s decision, which specifies a lack of international elements of genocide in the cases, can be read as a manifestation of the general agreement today that the UN would like the states of the Balkans solve their conflicts in line with EU regulations, free of direct outside intervention. Although the ICJ admitted that crime was committed at the time of the Croatian and Serbian claims, the acts were not classified as “genocide“ according to the decision of the ICJ. However, the final judgment, despite Croatia’s discontent therewith, will positively influence Serbia’s EU accession process and has set a precedent in the eyes of international organizations. Notably, of the litigating states, one is a member of the EU and the other is a candidate country that could be the 29th member granted access to the Union; although this is not likely to happen until 2020.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that the decision does not mean that there was no injustice, that people were not killed, that inhabitants weren’t forced to emigrate, or that residential areas were not destroyed. The ICJ’s decision was issued based on a conservative attitude in order to set the bar high when it comes to the judicial body’s official recognition of genocide.

Dilek Kütük is Asistant Specialist at Istanbul based think-tank, Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies - TASAM.
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