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

Witnesses in Bosnia ICJ Case Offer Few Surprises

Parties hail testimony as a boon for their respective cases, while observers say the procedure was something of a letdown.
By IWPR staff
Following the completion of witness testimony in Bosnia’s genocide suit against Serbia last week, the proceedings at the International Court of Justice have broken for three weeks pending a final round of oral arguments from both sides.

Meanwhile, as observers take time out to ponder what they heard in court, some say they feel rather underwhelmed.

The witnesses were widely expected to be a highlight of an otherwise dry and highly technical case. Live testimony about real-life events is practically unheard of at the ICJ, where evidence is typically gleaned from expert reports and reams of documents.

The witnesses who faced the panel of 16 judges in the middle of the court’s Great Hall of Justice included an expert on Islamic architecture, two British army generals, a French demographer and a host of Bosnian Serb, Serbian and Yugoslav officials.

Between them they offered a broad range of perspectives on the violence that ripped through Bosnia between 1992 and 1995.

But their evidence produced few revelations. And it proceeded at a distinctly sedate pace, compared with the cut-and-thrust adversarial proceedings seen in war crimes trials at the nearby International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

“I think people - at least those who follow trials at the ICTY - expected more from the witnesses,” said Milos Milic, a reporter for the Belgrade television station B92.

“I think the witnesses were not as important as what was happening before the hearings even started, when both sides were deciding on their strategy and their main arguments.”

Sarajevo’s legal team called just two individuals to shore up their argument that Serbia and Montenegro, as the successor to the now defunct state of Yugoslavia, should shoulder responsibility for widespread breaches of the United Nations genocide convention during the Bosnian war.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, who commanded British troops in Bosnia between 1994 and 1996, told the court how policies “originally... and predominantly orchestrated from Belgrade” were played out across the Drina river by forces under the command of top Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic.

As evidence of this, he cited “personnel support, equipment support [and] logistic support” provided to Mladic’s Army of the Republika Srpska, VRS. He also pointed to joint operations in which Bosnian Serb troops fought side by side with Belgrade security forces.

While Dannatt acknowledged that he had never seen evidence of formal orders being passed from Belgrade to the Bosnian Serb army, he noted that regular meetings took place between Mladic and the then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Drawing the judges’ attention to documentation suggesting that VRS officers received their salaries from the Yugoslav Army, VJ, Dannatt reminded them of the expression, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

Bosnia’s only other witness, Andras Riedlmayer, a bibliographer with the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, spoke of how genocide in Bosnia found one expression in “the deliberate and systematic destruction of the cultural and religious tradition and heritage associated with the targeted communities”.

Having carried out fieldwork in Bosnia in preparation for his previous appearances as an expert witness before the ICTY, Riedlmayer described how “in effect, one can trace the borders of territory held by Serb forces during the 1992 to 1995 war... by the absence of minarets”.

Rather than making a concerted effort to disprove genocide in Bosnia, the focus of the Serbian side’s testimony was on drawing a line between what happened there and the actions at the time of the Serbian and Yugoslav authorities.

General Sir Michael Rose, a former commander of the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia, UNPROFOR, readily acknowledged that “the military forces under the command of General Mladic were by far and away the greatest perpetrators of war crimes and atrocities”.

He also allowed that Belgrade may have been supporting Mladic’s VRS, both morally and materially. “But,” he added, “they were not controlling it in a military sense.”

Rose also made clear his staunch opposition to the very concept of Bosnia’s case before the ICJ. “It is better to pursue individuals for war crimes than to try and pursue states,” he declared, arguing that to punish “successive generations of young Serbs who are trying to put the past behind them” was “not conducive to peace”.

Vladimir Lukic and Vitomir Popovic - prime minister and vice prime minister, respectively, of the Republika Srpska from 1993 to 1994 - insisted that the entity had operated independently of Belgrade during the conflict.

Lukic said the Republika Srpska had “all elements of statehood except international recognition”, including a system of local and national governance, an army and police service, and justice, healthcare, education and financial systems.

“No one else could have, and to my knowledge, did not even attempt to command the army of Republika Srpska,” said Lukic.

“During my time in office and later, the government of Republika Srpska was completely independent in decision making and the implementation of its decisions,” echoed Popovic.

Relations between Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Serbs in fact became strained, said Popovic, after the latter rejected two Belgrade-backed peace initiatives - the Vance-Owen accords in 1993 and the so-called Contact Group peace plan the next year.

Following the failure of the first set of talks, he added that “all forms of earlier partnership and cooperation” with Yugoslavia were stopped and Bosnian Serb ministers were not even allowed to travel there.

Popovic denied that Yugoslavia had ever provided the Republika Srpska with financial assistance. Asked about aid for the Bosnian Serb military – channelled through specially-established bodies within the VJ known as the 30th and 40th Personnel Centres – the witness appeared to prefer to place this under the loose heading of “partnership relations”.

The Belgrade legal team also called Dusan Mihajlovic, a former Serbian interior minister, who told the court that, more than the Bosnian Serbs just being autonomous in the early Nineties, they in fact often acted “contrary to decisions taken in Belgrade and often in opposition to the positions of both Milosevic and of [the Yugoslav president] Dobrica Cosic”.

The court also heard testimony from Vladimir Milicevic, an interior ministry official responsible for a centre in Serbia which housed Muslim refugees who had fled the Srebrenica enclave in Bosnia after it fell to the VRS in July 1995.

In an effort to contrast Belgrade’s humane policies with the Bosnian Serbs’ slaughter of thousands of male prisoners in Srebrenica around that time – an episode which the ICTY has definitively labelled a genocide – Milicevic spoke of how those who fled were sheltered, clothed and fed by the Serbian authorities.

Milicevic said the centre he operated had central heating and sports facilities, and that guards there were banned from coming into direct contact with the detainees. He added that while another accommodation centre used to house Srebrenica refugees lacked central heating, conditions there were otherwise very similar.

Later in the week, Dragoljub Micunovic - an opposition politician in Serbia throughout the Milosevic years - told the court that the Serbian president, just like his counterparts in Sarajevo and Zagreb, had been “incapable” of stopping the conflict in Bosnia from escalating.

French demographer Jean-Paul Sardon also appeared, to challenge some of the higher figures given for the number who died during the Bosnian conflict. The best estimates so far, he said, were those that stood around the 100,000 mark.

Representatives of the opposing parties predictably told IWPR that the process of hearing testimony had gone well for them.

“I think our witnesses and experts strengthen all the main points of our case,” declared Sasa Obradovic, a lawyer on the Serbian team. He criticised Bosnia’s first witness, Riedlmayer, for overstepping the boundaries of his role as an expert. And he claimed that Dannatt’s evidence had “supported arguments of both the sides”.

Bosnian legal representative Sakib Softic was in an equally buoyant mood.

“I think the Bosnian team managed to prove its main points through the experts’ testimonies,” he told IWPR. As for the Serbian witnesses, he said, “It was to be expected that they would bend their testimonies to the wishes of Serbia’s team.”

Softic argued that as government officials in the early Nineties, Popovic and Lukic had in fact been specifically tasked with finding evidence that would dispute Bosnia’s case before the ICJ, which was first launched in 1993.

Some observers joined in this criticism of the Serbian team’s choice of witnesses.

Edina Becirevic, a senior lecturer at Sarajevo University’s criminal justice faculty, told IWPR that one could hardly expect Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb officials to provide objective testimony.

The Serbian team had originally intended to call one more Yugoslav official as a witness, former president Zoran Lilic. Obradovic admitted disappointment at Lilic’s last-minute decision to cancel, which he thought had “left a rather bad impression”.

At the same time, the Bosnian team also did not escape criticism.

Mirsad Tokaca, the director of the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, which compiles data on the victims of the conflict, said there was “no reasonable explanation” for the decision to call only two witnesses, both of whom were foreigners.

“There are some very good local experts in Bosnia and Hercegovina and they know the situation and the background of the conflict much better than international experts,” he said.

Milic, for his part, noted that it was up to the judges to make the final decision about how useful the whole procedure had been. His own impression, he said, was that the witnesses “probably received more media attention than they deserved”.

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