News 03 Mar 14

Croatia and Serbia Sue Each Other for Genocide

Hearings have started at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where the two countries have brought cases against each other, alleging genocide during the 1990s war.

Marija Ristic
BIRN
Belgrade
International Court of Justice. Photo: ICJ

Hearings began at the UN-backed court on Monday with Croatia laying out its case against Serbia and arguing that genocide does not necessarily mean the killing of an entire ethnic group.

“Genocide or genocidal intent is not a numbers game… Despite Croatian efforts, the state of Serbia is still living in denial of the past atrocities committed in its name,” said the head of the Croatian legal team, Vesna Crnic Grotic.

Zagreb aims to prove that units commanded by Belgrade killed more than 10,000 Croats during a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

In its counter-suit, Serbia wants to show that genocide was committed during the Croatian military’s Operation Storm in 1995, which saw Zagreb’s troops take back swathes of territory occupied by Belgrade’s forces in Croatia. More than 200,000 Croatian Serbs fled the country as a result.

Grotic played a video in the courtroom which showed the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar after the Yugoslav People’s Army and local Serbs seized it, saying it was an example of atrocities committed by Serb forces and orchestrated in Belgrade by “mastermind” Slobodan Milosevic.

Two other members of the Croatian legal team, Andreja Metelko Zgombic and James Crawford, further explained the role of Yugoslav People’s Army in achieving the Serbian goal of establishing a ‘Greater Serbia’ by seizing lands where Serbs lived, including a third of Croatian territory.

“In September and October 1991, Serbia performed a general attack on all fronts in Croatia,” said Metelko Zgombic, adding that a month afterwards Zagreb was also hit from the air.

Behind the attack was Milosevic, who together with other Serbian leaders was part of a joint criminal enterprise which resulted in mass expulsions from Serb-controlled areas, Zgombic said.

Crawford meanwhile argued that in 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army “abandoned its neutral role and transformed into an army pursuing Serbian objectives… and became a de facto Serbian military force”.

Helen Law, who also presented evidence for Croatia at Monday’s session, said Serbian media whipped up prejudice before the start of the war in Croatia.

“Articles started to appear that demonised Croats… where Croats are those to collectively blame for crimes committed against Serbs from 1941 until 1945,” she said.

Croatia filed genocide charges against Serbia at the International Court of Justice in 1999, also demanding that Belgrade punish all perpetrators of war crimes during the 1990s conflict, return looted cultural property and pay for wartime damages.

In response, Serbia submitted a counter-claim in 2010, maintaining that Croatia was guilty of genocide against Serbs during and after the war.

Both sides have expressed confidence that they will win their cases.

The head of the Serbian legal team, Sasa Obradovic, said that Belgrade would prove that Operation Storm was “the culmination of [Zagreb’s] criminal intent” to permanently expel Serbs.

Obradovic said that his team would also show that there was no genocide of Croats during the 1991-95 war.

“There is no dispute that some horrific crimes took place… but they didn’t have the characteristics of genocide,” he said on Sunday.

Croatian justice minister Orsat Miljenic has said meanwhile that Zagreb will win its case because “it is clear who was the aggressor and who is the victim”.

“Our expectations are to show what really happened in Croatia… Who committed the crimes against our people, who attacked whom,” Miljenic told Croatian broadcaster RTL.

The court sessions are expected to last a month, while the verdict is expected by the end of the year and cannot be appealed.

Concerns have been raised that the cases could sour relations between the two neighbours.

However at a meeting in Belgrade last week, Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic and Serbian deputy prime minister Aleksandar Vucic insisted that it would not damage ties.

“Let’s not poison our relations with the fact that we have different view on past events,” Vucic said.

Legal experts have suggested that neither side is likely to win its case. Since it was established after World War II, the International Court of Justice has only recognised one case of genocide – the Srebrenica massacres in Bosnia in 1995.

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