Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ICJ Case Underwhelms

Interest in Bosnia’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice is fading fast for some in the Balkans.
Nine weeks after it started amidst much fanfare and a media frenzy, hearings in the longest case in the history of the International Court of Justice drew quietly to a close on May 9.

Only a handful of journalists have been seen in the press benches of the court’s Great Hall of Justice over the past two weeks as lawyers representing Sarajevo and Belgrade presented their final arguments in Bosnia’s genocide suit against Serbia and Montenegro.

The beginning of the proceedings received extensive coverage in the local media and sparked numerous debates on what the case meant for good neighbourly relations between the two countries and the future of the region. But the more it progressed, the less interested local media have become.

Observers in Bosnia and Serbia say this has nothing to do with the content of the hearings themselves.

Edina Becirevic, a senior lecturer at the Sarajevo Faculty of Criminal Science, argues that much the same thing happens with all big events – the media find them exciting only at the beginning and at the end. Everything in between is not news.

“Even if Karadzic and Mladic were arrested, everybody would come to The Hague to cover their trial for the first few days – but then they would all go home,” she said.

Alma Sahbaz, public information manager at the Office of the High Representative, agrees with this view, “It is true that the interest of the general public for this case has somewhat decreased, but that will change at the end, when the ICJ judges make their ruling – that will make headlines again.”

At the moment, however, people in Serbia and Montenegro, are too preoccupied with other more pressing issues to worry about Bosnia’s genocide case. Montenegro’s pending referendum on possible independence from its current state union with Serbia and the ongoing talks on the future political status of Kosovo are the most obvious ones.

“Serbia faces a million other problems at the moment, such as the pressure to arrest [Bosnian Serb general Ratko] Mladic, obstructions of the government and widespread corruption,” said Ljubica Gojgic, a reporter for the Belgrade television station B92, who regularly follows the ICJ proceedings in The Hague.

She added that interest was considerably higher in Bosnia.

The director of the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, Mirsad Tokaca - whose data on the number of victims of the war in Bosnia has been employed during the hearings - confirmed this view, “ “I’ve been following this case very closely from the beginning, and I don’t think people here have lost interest in it – on the contrary.”

He noted that his compatriots read whatever they can find in the newspapers - however little that may be - because the result may be very important for their future.

Becirevic agreed that the scant attention paid to the ICJ case in the Bosnian media does not mean that it has been forgotten. “It’s true that you can’t see so much about this case in the media lately,” she said, “but that does not reflect the real interest of common people of this country for the lawsuit.”

The evidence presented over the past nine weeks appears to have offered very little new information and has certainly done little to change the positions of the two opposing camps in the Balkans. But the proceedings have generated a few surprises.

Gojgic pointed to a video presented by the Bosnian team showing the current Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica touring Bosnian Serb positions around the besieged city of Sarajevo during the war and complimenting the soldiers for bravely defending “the borders of the future Serbia”. He was an opposition politician at the time.

“Everybody in Serbia broadcast that video [after it was shown in the ICJ courtroom], because we didn’t have a chance to see it before,” said Gojgic.

While the Kostunica video was already widely known in Bosnia, there were also surprises for observers there.

“Documents showing that Yugoslav army forces were directly involved in the attacks against Muslims in Srebrenica and Visegrad were introduced for the first time and were not presented at the previous or ongoing trials at the tribunal,” said Becirevic.

She explained that this evidence had first emerged in a 2004 report by the Republika Srpska, RS, government into the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Parts of this report have been used in trials at the tribunal - including that of the former Srebrenica commander Naser Oric - but the full document has not been made public yet.

As the ICJ case got underway in February, many hoped that the initial excitement it caused might stimulate much-needed discussions, debates and round tables on important issues relating to the Bosnian war. But so far this has not occurred.

Becirevic told IWPR that in her opinion, the Bosnian public are keeping their distance from the case in order to save themselves possible upset in the event of a ruling in Serbia’s favour.

“People are cautious,” she said “They don’t want to raise their hopes too much in order to avoid bigger disappointment later.”

Gojgic said she was surprised at the lack of debate on the issue in Serbia. One possible explanation, she noted, is the lack of experts on international law in the country. Another, perhaps more important, factor is a sheer lack of interest in the case in Serbian academic circles, she added.

But while Serbian intellectuals and the Belgrade authorities have been reluctant to initiate public debate on the matter, Gojgic says the Serbian public is a different story.

Since the ICJ hearings began, thousands of people have posted comments on the website of the Serbian television station B92, which regularly reports on the case. The participants in this online debate are from both Serbia and Bosnia and, given their recent history, Gojgic says their discussions are “surprisingly civilised”.

Still, she says, it is obvious that there remains a lot of anger on both sides and staunch disagreement on the core issues, including whether genocide occurred in Bosnia and, if so, who should be held responsible, “They may not agree on many things, but at least this is a place where they can express their opinion and give much needed vent to their feelings.”

Merdijana Sadovic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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