OPINION

The long road to justice

The recent International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict absolving Serbia and Croatia of crimes of genocide in the 1990s Balkan wars underscores the political sensitivities involved in holding sovereign states liable for serious atrocities. The litigation dates back to 1999, when Croatia alleged genocide by Serbia during the 1991-1995 war over its secession from the former Yugoslavia. In the bombing campaign, over 12,000 civilians were killed; many thousands were incarcerated and fled their homes following the occupation of about one-third of its territory by Serbian separatists. In its 2010 counter which similarly alleged genocide, Belgrade contended that thousands of ethnic Serbs were forced to flee their homes in Zagreb’s 1995 military offensive to reclaim lost territory. In its ruling, the ICJ held that despite large-scale atrocities and displacement of people on both sides during the break-up of Yugoslavia, the intent to destroy an entire population could not be proved under the 1948 UN Convention on genocide.

Significantly, the ICJ had adopted a similar stance in its 2007 verdict on the infamous July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces. There again, the court had opined that Belgrade was not responsible for genocide, even as it maintained that the 1948 convention had been breached insofar as the country’s leaders failed to prevent the brutal killings. Clearly, the fine line between ethnic cleansing and genocide is a politically ticklish matter for the Hague court to determine in relation to inter-state disputes. Conversely, the conviction of a number of top individual leaders for genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) established in 1993 serves as an instructive comparison. The Tribunal has already pronounced a guilty verdict on at least five Bosnian Serb army officers of crimes of genocide in the Srebrenica massacre. Although the verdict on the notorious wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, is still pending, the many hurdles that have been crossed to bring the trial to fruition are a reassuring sign. Undoubtedly, prosecutions in various tribunals continue to encounter formidable obstacles in bringing perpetrators, often influential individual politicians and others, to justice. Nevertheless, global humanitarian law has evolved degree in recent decades to provide victims of brutalities and witnesses a critical forum to testify to violations. Enforcing transparency and accountability within and across national boundaries is a long and arduous process. But the framework is critical to render the world as a whole humane.

Recommended for you