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U.N. court clears Serbia of genocide

But it blames the nation for not preventing the massacre of Muslims during the Bosnian war.

February 27, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic | Special to The Times

BERLIN — The United Nations' highest court ruled Monday that Serbia failed to prevent the massacre of Muslims during the Bosnian war but was not directly responsible for the atrocities, ending a landmark case in which an entire nation was tried for genocide.

The decision, which was closely watched by other countries facing allegations of war crimes, was viewed by Serbia as a vindication of its role in the 1992-95 war. The ruling angered leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina and ended their efforts to win reparations in the killing of as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.

The court did find that the Bosnian Serb army had committed genocide and that neighboring Serbia had "known influence" over them. The 13-2 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague blamed Serbia for not taking "any initiative to prevent what happened or any action on its part to avert the atrocities."

The massacre in Srebrenica was the worst in Europe since World War II. The Bosnian town had been declared a safe area by U.N. peacekeepers until it was overrun in July 1995 by ethnic Serb forces. Bosnian Serbs opposed a move by the country's Muslims and Croats to secede from Yugoslavia.

The court ruling, which took more than two hours for Judge Rosalyn Higgins to read, comes as Serbia is under international pressure to arrest Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of orchestrating the massacre. Mladic and former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic have been indicted for crimes against humanity but have been at large for years.

The failure of Western governments to locate Mladic and Karadzic and arrest them has led many Bosnians to charge that the West is unsympathetic to the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims.

The court ordered Serbia to turn Mladic over to the U.N.'s war crimes tribunal in The Hague. However, it ruled that because Serbia's government did not deliberately intend to "destroy in whole or in part" Bosnia's Muslim population, Bosnia was not entitled to billions of dollars in reparations.

"Financial compensation is not the appropriate form of reparation for the breach of obligation to prevent genocide," the court said.

Reaction to the verdict underscored the differences between Serbia's moderates and nationalists in dealing with the court and tribunal. Many Serbs consider Mladic a hero. In a veiled reference to the demand for Mladic's arrest, Serbian President Boris Tadic said that if the hard-liners didn't cooperate with the international community, the country would face "dramatic political and economic consequences."

The decision is also likely to exacerbate tensions between Bosnia's predominant Muslim population and the largely autonomous Serbian entity within Bosnia known as Republika Srpska.

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia was formalized by a peace agreement in 1995, Bosnia has lingered as an unsettled patchwork of Muslim, Serb and Croat nationalist ambitions still presided over by international peacekeepers.

"I am stunned," Hedija Krdzic, who lost her husband, father and grandfather in Srebrenica, said Monday outside the court. "This is terrible. I saw with my own eyes who started this war and who kept up the aggression. It was the Serbs."

Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative in Bosnia's three-member presidency, told Bosnian television that Serbia had escaped a genocide conviction but that it must "accept political, moral and material responsibility." He added that Serbia violated the spirit of the 1948 Genocide Convention by not preventing mass ethnic killing or punishing those involved.

Those sentiments were echoed by Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of the presidency, who told state television: "I don't know whether the issue is a lack of evidence or a wrong estimate. Genocide was committed in Bosnia in 1992, and every person who has a different opinion is running away from truth. I know what I will teach my child."

The ruling suggests that Serbia is not likely to examine its role in instigating a war that killed about 200,000 people and introduced the euphemism of "ethnic cleansing." The nation has long portrayed itself as a victim of the West, an attitude that hovered over the trial of former President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in his cell at The Hague in March weeks before his war crimes trial was to end.

"Today, the name of Serbia was mentioned again in the context of war crimes and genocide in all the world's media," Tadic said after the verdict. "The policy that led us again into the focus [of] negative world opinion was the policy of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic."

The ruling, which several analysts hinted could inflame Islamic extremists in Bosnia, brought relief in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Many Serbs said they had feared taxes would go up and the nation would be economically imperiled if it had to pay genocide reparations.

The decision should not be "celebrated or taken as a huge injustice" by either Serbs or Bosnians, said Milan Nikolic, director of the Center for Policy Studies in Belgrade. He called the ruling a compromise that chastises Serbia while recognizing that it faces other pressures.

A genocide verdict "would be too many blows in a row for Serbia, and these blows would seriously undermine pro-Western forces and boost the radicals," Nikolic said. "One should not rock the Serb boat in the Balkans too much, because if that is done, the whole region might collapse."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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