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07 Mar 17

Everybody Wants To Sue Serbia for Genocide

Dejan Anastasijevic

Politicians and lawyers are the only people benefiting from the lawsuits for genocide – or the threat of them – flying in Serbia’s direction from its neighbours.

The Bosniak leader in Bosnia, Bakir Izetbegovic, has filed another lawsuit against Serbia. Photo: Anadolu

As if there’s a shortage of bad news, almost every morning I wake up I see another headline announcing that someone is about to sue Serbia for genocide.

First it was just Bosnia-Herzegovina, which sued Serbia in 1993, two years before Srebrenica - the only case of genocide in the Yugoslav wars that international courts determined actually happened.

The suit was later expanded, and, after the marathon trial, which ended in 2007, the Hague-based International Court of Justice, ICJ, acquitted Serbia of having actively participated in the genocidal murder of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica.

However, it did determine that Serbia could have done more to prevent the crime and that it failed to punish the perpetrators, many of whom hid in Serbia after the war.

The ICJ rejected Croatia’s case against Serbia – also for genocide – in 2015, on the grounds that war crimes in Croatia, horrible as they were, did not meet the legal standards for genocide. 

Now, claiming that they have discovered new evidence, the Bosniak leader in Bosnia, Bakir Izetbegovic, has filed another lawsuit against Serbia, triggering the worst political crisis in Bosnia since the end of the war and causing new tensions between Sarajevo and Belgrade.

Sulejman Ugljanin, a politician from Sandzak, a mainly Bosniak-populated part of Serbia, is allegedly pondering joining Izetbegovic’s suit – although the ICJ only accepts lawsuits filed by member states of the United Nations.

It has also been reported that Albania is preparing to sue Serbia in the same court on behalf of Kosovo for atrocities that Serbian forces committed there during the 1998-1999 war. Even if Albania doesn’t sue, Kosovo leaders have made no secret that they intend to sue Serbia as soon Kosovo joins the UN.

Then there’s Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are demanding that massacres allegedly committed there by Serbian troops during the 1912 Balkan war be deemed acts of genocide.

Experts in international law maintain that none of these suits, including the Bosnian attempt at a re-trial, has a serious chance of success.

The only case that could have had ended in Serbia’s conviction was the first Bosnian suit, but even that was a long shot and eventually failed.

So, mostly, the lawsuits, or the threat to launch them, are ploys by local politicians seeking votes by promising billions of dollars in reparations that Serbia would have to pay in damages if it gets convicted.

The only people who saw any profit from these suits so far were lawyers, who have collected hefty fees for representing their clients in court.

As a reporter who extensively covered the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, I have my own opinion on the Serbian government’s role in Srebrenica and other war crimes in the region.

I gave evidence on that at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, the ICTY. However, that court was judging individuals; the ICJ deals with countries.

I strongly believe that persons involved in war crimes, regardless of their ethnicity, rank or political position, should be brought to justice. However, I am much less enthusiastic when it comes to judging countries.

The International Convention on Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide was forged in 1948. Nazi Germany could not be put on trial because the Convention can’t be applied retroactively.

Despite endless repetitions of the slogan “Never Again” by countless politicians, genocides continued to occur after 1948 - in Srebrenica, Rwanda, possibly in Sudan. It’s quite likely that the ongoing slaughter in Syria could also be qualified as such.

But no country has ever been convicted of genocide.

Had the first Bosnian suit succeeded, Serbia would have been the first country in history branded as genocidal by an international court. It would also have had to pay a lot of money to Bosnia.

I don’t think that this could be described as justice.

As a Serb, I share my part of collective responsibility for what happened to Croats, Bosniaks, and Kosovo Albanians during the war. But I find it hard to accept collective guilt, and the stigma that would have been applied to every citizen of Serbia.

Why should I, my children and my children’s children have to pay damages for war crimes that I not only took no part in but did my best to expose?

Serbia is officially the fourth poorest country in Europe, preceded, by a thin margin, by Bosnia, Albania, and Macedonia. Burdening it with damages would be like forcing a beggar to give all his meager possessions to another, slightly poorer one.

Even without convictions, the wave of genocide lawsuits has already poisoned relations in the region, which is still striving to recover from the war. They are an obstacle to reconciliation and trust building.

Last but not least, they do nothing for the victims in whose name they were supposedly launched.

Talk about it!

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