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Bosnia: New Row Over ICJ Ruling

Last year’s International Court of Justice ruling provokes political disagreement in Bosnia.
Bosnian victims of the 1990s Balkans wars welcomed last year’s ICJ ruling that Serbia was guilty of failing to punish the perpetrators of genocide. However, 12 months later, it seems that the verdict has only served to deepen political division in the country.

When the verdict of the world’s highest court was announced, it was interpreted differently in Bosnia and Serbia.

Bosniaks focused on the fact that Serbia was found guilty of failing to use its influence to prevent genocide and of failing to meet its obligation to punish the perpetrators, while Belgrade celebrated being acquitted for direct responsibility for genocide, and ignored the nuances, including the finding of partial responsibility.

Serbia has still not captured war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, in spite of an order contained in the ICJ ruling that it “take immediate steps… to transfer individuals accused of genocide to the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia] and to co-operate fully with the tribunal”.

Bosnian leaders, whose communities waged war against each other in the 1990s, are now split over what action should be taken against Serbia’s failure to hand over the men.

Earlier this month, the Bosniak and Croat members of the state presidency - Haris Silajdzic and Zeljko Komsic - decided to ask the UN Security Council to force Serbia to comply with the ICJ ruling and finally extradite all fugitives to the Hague tribunal.

However, Serb member of the presidency Nebojsa Radmanovic, backed by the parliament in the Serb half of the country, vetoed this decision, saying it was detrimental to “Bosnian Serbs’ vital national interests”.

Speaking to the Bosnian Serb parliament on February 22, Radmanovic said such a request to the Security Council “would also be against good neighbourly relations with Serbia, and it comes at the most difficult time for that country".

Strangely enough, the full ICJ judgment has never been translated into local languages in Bosnia, nor has it been published in the country’s Official Gazette. These steps should be taken urgently, said Sakib Softic, former leader of the team representing Bosnia at the ICJ.

“Only when the judgment is translated and made available to all Bosnian citizens, can we think of further moves that we can make,” he said.

The prevailing view in Serbia is that the ICJ’s decision was not binding and was only a recommendation as to which steps the country should take after the verdict.

“Serbia was not obliged to fulfill the ICJ judges’ requests for full co-operation with the Hague tribunal,” said Radoslav Stojanovic, head of the legal team which represented Belgrade at the ICJ.

“Therefore, we cannot be punished by the UN Security Council for failing to meet those requests.”

However, Stojanovic added that this did not mean Serbia should not aim to cooperate fully with the ICTY.

“That’s our moral obligation, and that issue should not be put aside,” he said.

Spokesman for Serbia’s prosecutor for war crimes Bruno Vekaric said Serbia currently has too many other problems and is not able to deal with the ICJ judgment.

Angered by western support for Kosovo, which declared independence on February 17, the country has threatened to cut ties with all countries which recognise the province, including the US and most EU members.

“Although as a Serbian citizen, I am glad that my country was acquitted of direct responsibility for Bosnian genocide, the judgment - which clearly stated that Serbia has not done enough to prevent or punish perpetrators of this crime - certainly obliges us all to do something about it,” said Vekaric.

Vojin Dimitrijević, a former ad hoc judge at the ICJ, said the fact that Serbia has done nothing yet to comply with the ICJ ruling - whether it was legally bound to or not - would not help Belgrade’s reputation.

“Serbia is constantly calling for the respect of international law when it comes to Kosovo’s secession, but how can it be taken seriously when Belgrade itself is in breach of international law?” he asked.

Ana Jerosimovic from the Centre for Human Rights in Belgrade blamed the media for not providing an accurate interpretation of the judgment to the Serbian public.

“There was no public debate on this judgment and the only official statement related to the verdict was given by Serbian president Boris Tadic, who said that the National Assembly should adopt a declaration condemning the genocide in Srebrenica. Regretfully, this never happened,” she said.

Activists have urged international prosecutors to take additional steps to revise the judgment. One such move could be to push for a renewal of the process, which would be possible if compelling new evidence appeared within the next nine years.

Such evidence may be hidden in the transcripts of Serbia’s Supreme Defence Council, SDC, meetings. These documents, which were not requested from Serbia by ICJ judges, are seen by many in Bosnia as being of great importance.

Activists believe they could show to which extent Belgrade’s top officials were involved in Srebrenica’s 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, classified by both the ICTY and the ICJ as genocide.

Edina Becirevic, a senior lecturer at Sarajevo’s Faculty of Criminal Justice Sciences, said prosecutors needed to be imaginative in exploiting what evidence was available, despite the official secrecy.

“A book written by former Montenegrin President Momir Bulatovic called ‘The Unspoken Defence’ contains a great number of confidential documents and SDC transcripts which the ICJ judges failed to request from Serbia at the time when the Bosnian case was being presented at this court,” she said.

“This book alone should be a sufficient reason for renewed pressure on Serbia to reveal these documents in full. If all the SDC transcripts - including those from 1995 - finally become public, then Bosnia might have a chance of renewing the process before the ICJ. And maybe even win this time.”

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