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

Milosevic's Death Boosts Serb ICJ Defence

Lawyers for Serbia admit a Milosevic conviction for genocide would have made their job much harder.
By IWPR
When the team of lawyers representing Belgrade in Bosnia’s genocide case against Serbia and Montenegro packed their briefcases last Friday and left the imposing baroque Justice Hall of the International Court of Justice, ICJ, little did they know that just a day later their case would get an unexpected boost - Slobodan Milosevic, who was inextricably linked to this lawsuit, and probably the main reason Serbia has a case to answer to, died an innocent man.



The former Yugoslav president died of a heart attack on March 11, just months before the Hague’s war crimes tribunal, ICTY, was expected to complete the case, and render a judgment on the charges against him, which included allegations of genocide in Bosnia.



A conviction, say all observers, could have had a great impact on Bosnia’s case against Serbia at the ICJ. ”If Milosevic had been convicted of genocide [in Bosnia], it would definitely have had a negative effect on our case,” member of the Serbian team Tibor Varadi told Belgrade news agency Beta, a few days after Milosevic was found dead.



“That means ICJ will now have to make a decision without having the foundation of a Hague tribunal decision to follow.”



In a landmark suit, which was launched 13 years ago and is the first of its kind, Sarajevo hopes to prove that Serbia - under Milosevic’s rule at that time - was responsible for genocide against Bosnia’s non-Serb population during the 1992-95 war.



Varadi’s claim that Bosnia’s case has been “seriously weakened” by Milosevic’s death was rejected out of hand by the Sarajevo team as “completely unfounded”.



“His death will have no effect on this case whatsoever,” Bosnia’s legal representative Sakib Softic told IWPR.



Milosevic’s Belgrade lawyer Toma Fila triumphantly told news agencies shortly after his client’s death that evidence presented during Milosevic’s four-year trial will now be useless to anyone, especially to the team representing Bosnia in its genocide case against Serbia.

Natasa Kandic, a leading human rights activist in Serbia, who has provided important evidence to the UN war crimes prosecutors in Milosevic’s case, disagrees.



Even though she recently told Bosnian television Hayat that Milosevic’s death before the end of the trial has caused “historic damage”, she added that “all the evidence and all the documents presented during the open hearings remain, they are valid and can be used in …Bosnia’s case against Serbia and Montenegro”.



There is no doubt that Milosevic’s name was closely linked to the case. As they laid out their arguments, the Sarajevo team used much of two years’ worth of evidence presented during the prosecution phase of Milosevic’s trial. This was the evidence that had already convinced ICTY judges that he had a case to answer about genocide in Bosnia.



“He left when we needed him most,” an ironic Zdravko Grebo, a Sarajevo law professor, told Bosnian television station Hayat the day Milosevic died, summing up the frustration of most Bosnia’s citizens with this unexpected turn of events.



Whether their expectations were realistic or not, many Bosnians hoped that Milosevic would have been found guilty of genocide before the end of this year. If that had come before a ruling on Bosnia’s lawsuit, this would undoubtedly have increased the country’s chance of winning the case, they think.



“The death of Slobodan Milosevic is the worst thing that could have happened to us,” said Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje reporter Nagorka Idrizovic, who has followed the hearings at the ICJ since their beginning.



“If he had been found guilty of genocide, that would have been extremely valuable for Bosnia’s case. And more importantly, the main perpetrator of that crime would have a name,” she said.



Despite Milosevic’s unexpected demise, it was business as usual for the ICJ this week. The Serbian team continued presenting their arguments in a manner which was “quite predictable”, observers told IWPR.



This week, lawyers dedicated a significant portion of the hearings to the events in Srebrenica in July 1995, which have already been judged by the ICTY as genocide.



In his presentation on March 13 and 14, British lawyer Ian Brownlie described the murders of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica following its takeover by Bosnian Serb forces as “local reprisals”.



“No long-term planning was involved, and certainly no planning in Belgrade,” he told the court.



He quoted further from the report of the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation on Srebrenica published in 2002, which stated that “there is no evidence to suggest any political or military liaison with Belgrade, and in the case of this mass murder such a liaison is highly improbable”.



“The report does not contain any suggestion that the Belgrade government had advance knowledge of the attack,” suggested Brownlie.



He went on to say that “Republika Srpska and its armed forces were not under the effective control of the Belgrade government” nor “by the Yugoslav army” and he accused the Bosnian team of ignoring the “substantial evidence of the status of Republika Srpska as an independent state and the clear evidence that as of May 1992 General [Ratko] Mladic no longer accepted instructions from Belgrade”.



On March 15, Brownlie’s French colleague Xavier de Roux accused Bosnia of using “propaganda and misinformation” as a weapon of war “just as effective as many divisions of troops”.



He said the Sarajevo authorities “understood very quickly that they should present themselves as a weak and innocent victim of war faced with the powerful force”. To achieve that goal, Roux said they even engaged a famous American public relations agency, Rudder & Finn Global Public Affairs, which, according to Roux, had the job of convincing international public opinion that Bosnian Muslims were the victims of genocide.



De Roux quoted an interview apparently given by the agency’s director James Harff in October 1993, in which he said that the agency presented “a simple story of good guys and bad guys”, and that they mainly targeted “Jewish audience”, using words with “high emotional content such as ethnic cleansing, concentration camps, etc” to a great effect.



“The emotional charge was so powerful that nobody could go against it”, de Roux quoted Harff as saying in this interview.



The French lawyer said he did not deny that the camps in Bosnia, such as Manjaca, Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm and other notorious Serb-held prison camps “were contrary to humanitarian law and were often against the laws of war”, but insisted they were not “concentration camps” as they were often described in the press. He also put it to the court that they were not as nearly as bad as the camps in which Jews were held during the Second World War.



During their seven-day long oral presentation, which ended on March 16, Serbia’s lawyers offered few surprises. Over the next few days, the court will be hearing from experts and witnesses from both sides.



As expected, the Serbian team raised the question of jurisdiction of the court to hear Bosnia’s case and insisted that a political solution, including an out of court settlement was still possible.



They also claimed that while horrible crimes did take place in Bosnia, they “did not amount to genocide”.



Belgrade lawyers said that their opponents showed “a complete indifference to the actual nature of the conflict in the region”, which was, in fact, a “civil war”, not an aggression by the defendant state.



As for the control Belgrade allegedly had over Bosnian Serb forces, according to the Serbian team “it did not exist”.



At times they even appeared to justify Serb crimes by comparing them to crimes that were committed against Serbs by the other two parties in the conflict. A lawyer close to the Bosnian team told IWPR this was a particularly weak point of their strategy.



“If someone accuses you of a crime, you don’t say, well, I had the right to commit it, because I was a victim, too. You just try to prove that you didn’t commit that crime, full stop,” said the lawyer.



Bosnian state television reporter Boris Grubesic, who has followed the oral presentations since the beginning, described the Serbian case so far as “logical and something that was to be expected”, particularly their denial that war crimes which undoubtedly occurred in Bosnia could be classed as genocide.



“But they will have hard time denying that Serbian police and military forces took part in the Srebrenica massacre and that Belgrade couldn’t prevent Serbian paramilitary units from entering Bosnia,” he said.



Some people in Serbia also disagree with their team’s strategy, especially with their offers to settle this issue out of court.



“[An] out of court settlement means that we accept the responsibility for genocide,” Radivoj Todorovic from the Serbian city of Sabac wrote on Belgrade’s radio B92 website a few days ago.



“Who gave our team the right to take on such burden on behalf of our state and all of us?” he asked.



Meanwhile, with every day of the hearings at the ICJ, Bosnia seems to be more and more divided over this issue.



In an interview for a local television station in Bijeljina last week, the Serb member of the Bosnian joint presidency Borislav Paravac said this lawsuit had “caused an impossible rift” between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs and added that whatever decision was reached, “it would seriously shake the political situation in Bosnia”.



He reiterated what many politicians from Republika Srspka and Serbia have repeatedly said – that this is “clearly a lawsuit of Bosnian Muslims against all Serbs”.



Political analyst from Banja Luka, Tanja Topic, told IWPR such views are “understandable”, considering the sensitivity of the issue and the fact that “one half of Bosnia’s population identifies with the neighboring state and sees their own country only as a necessary evil”.



“This lawsuit is not a solution to the problems we have in Bosnia and will not bridge the gap that exists between Bosnian Serbs and other nations who live here,” she said.



But a Muslim man from Sarajevo who took part in a B92 online debate about the lawsuit says this is the only way to set the record of past events straight.



“Since our truth and the Serb truth are completely different, we should let [the] independent, smart judges from the ICJ decide which truth is the real one,” he said.



Merdijana Sadovic is a regular IWPR contributor.

More IWPR's Global Voices