REGIONAL REPORT: Serbs Fear Reparations Bill

A genocide conviction against Milosevic could prompt the International Court of Justice to demand that Serbia pay war damages.

REGIONAL REPORT: Serbs Fear Reparations Bill

A genocide conviction against Milosevic could prompt the International Court of Justice to demand that Serbia pay war damages.

Should former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic be convicted of genocide his country may have to pay reparations to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia for the destruction wrought in those countries during the conflicts of the 1990s.

That is the fear of many in Serbia, who see a link between the Milosevic trial at The Hague and genocide charges filed by Bosnia-Herzegovina before the International Court of Justice. Croatia is expected to file similar charges soon.

If Yugoslavia is found guilty of genocide, the country would be plunged into even greater economic difficulties than it is at present. It would have to fork out large sums of money to compensate neighbouring states for the 8 years of war suffered while Milosevic was in power. In a country already worn out by conflict and corruption, such an outcome is a source of dread.

Speculation is rife that reparations could amount to 1.5 billion US dollars, wiping out financial aid recently pledged by the international community.

At present, the Bosnia case is on hold. After the ousting of Milosevic, the new Yugoslav government asked the court of justice to reassess the 1996 decision to give Sarajevo the go ahead to sue, arguing that it had made a break with the Milosevic regime and should not be held liable for his policies. A decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution is pending.

Expert opinion is divided on the implications for Yugoslavia of a Milosevic genocide conviction at The Hague.

The war crimes tribunal deals with cases individual guilt, while the court of justice handles cases filed by states against states. Some legal authorities, such as Professor of law Vojin Dimitrijevic, see no danger for Belgrade as they insist the two courts are quite different entities and cannot influence one another's decisions.

Dimitrijevic also points out the court of justice case could well be concluded before a verdict is reached at the Milosevic trial.

International law expert Milan Sahovic believes the tribunal judgement would form "only one isolated fact, which may or may not be taken into consideration by the International Court of Justice when it comes to making its decision".

Sahovic is also categorical that Yugoslavia has made a clean break with the Milosevic era state and should therefore not be held to account for what happened under his rule.

But others, such as Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, fear a genocide conviction against Milosevic could add weight to the Bosnian case at the court of the justice.

"Milosevic continues to be our problem - the state needs to continue being present in The Hague, not to defend its former president but to defend itself," he said.

Dragoljub Micunovic, president of the federal parliament's lower house, argues that genocide conviction against Milosevic will inevitably result in the state being convicted of the same charge because the former president's alleged crimes could not have been perpetrated without the authorities' full complicity.

Dragor Hiber, a law professor at Belgrade university and a ruling DOS coalition deputy in the Serbian parliament, insists the two cases are separate and have no bearing on each other. But he is still worried that evidence revealed during the Milosevic trial could be used in the cases brought by Bosnia and Croatia.

So Serbia now faces something of a paradox. Only by establishing Milosevic's individual guilt can the Serbian people rid themselves of collective guilt. But the prosecution of the former head of state may mean that the whole nation will have to pay a heavy financial price.

Some liberals argue there is some justice in this as Milosevic was after all democratically elected and enjoyed considerable popular support for his belligerent politics for many years.

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is an activist of the Helsinki Committee in Serbia.

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