Top UN court to rule on Balkans genocide claims

AFP , Tuesday 3 Feb 2015

A man walks towards the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015 (Photo: AP)

The UN's highest court on Tuesday started delivering its ruling in a long-running genocide case between Croatia and Serbia, a landmark decision that could reopen old wounds between the former foes.

The case has been described by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic as perhaps one of the "most important events" determining his country's relations with Croatia.

International Court of Justice chief judge Peter Tomka began reading the verdict in the 15-year case at the tribunal headquarters in The Hague's Peace Palace at 10 am (0900 GMT).

Zagreb dragged Belgrade before the ICJ in 1999 on genocide charges linked to Croatia's war of independence that raged in 1991-95 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia was accused of ethnic cleansing as a "form of genocide", leading to large numbers of Croats being displaced, killed or tortured and their property being destroyed.

About 20,000 people died in the conflict, one of several bloody wars that shook the Balkans in the 1990s.

Zagreb wants the ICJ judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation for damage "to persons and properties as well as to the Croatian economy and environment... a sum to be determined by the court".

Belgrade responded with a counter-suit in 2010, saying some 200,000 ethnic Serbs were forced to flee when Croatia launched a military operation to retake its territory.

Following Zagreb's counter-offensive, called Operation Storm, the proportion of ethnic Serbs in Croatia shrank from 12 percent to four percent.

Belgrade was outraged in 2012 when Operation Storm's Croatian military commander, Ante Gotovina, was acquitted on appeal before the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

"The irony is that Croatia... which with its forceful separatism, triggered an avalanche of the horrid civil war in the former Yugoslavia, is accusing someone else of genocide," Serbia said in a statement as the case was being heard last year.

So far the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, has recognised only one genocide case since opening its doors in 1946.

Genocide is the most serious of international crimes but also the hardest to prove.

In 2007 the court ruled that genocide had taken place in 1995, at Srebrenica in neighbouring Bosnia, when almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves by Bosnian Serb troops that overran a UN-protected enclave.

The decision in the current case, which was heard in March last year, has been reached by a 17-judge bench, including two ad-hoc judges.

Both Belgrade and Zagreb have said they will accept the verdict.

Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic has said that Zagreb's main goal was to "present what happened in the war and that was aggression against Croatia".

"Expectations have already been met," through the case being presented at the ICJ, Orsat added.

Serbia's Dacic said on Sunday: "This will be one of perhaps the most important events for our bilateral relations with Croatia."

"It will probably be the end of a process that has lasted for 15-20 years (and) will put an end to both sides' fight to prove who the worst criminal is."

"Maybe we'll have an opportunity to leave the past behind and turn towards the future."

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