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30 Mar 2007

Strategic justice

After the ICJ's ruling in the Bosnia genocide case, Croatia considers dropping its own, weaker case against Serbia, as both sides maneuver for better bargaining positions that have little to do with justice.

By Anes Alic

Weeks after the International Court of Justice (ICJ) cleared Serbia and Montenegro of responsibility for the genocide of Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the 1992-1995 war, Croatia is considering dropping its own charges against Serbia, seeing little hope in winning the case.

Meanwhile, Serbia has made its own strategic move to win more bargaining power by announcing it would file a case against Croatia for war crimes committed against Croatian Serbs.

Croatia filed the suit in July 1999, accusing the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, then Serbia-Montenegro, of committing genocide on Croatian territory and organizing the killing of some 10,000 people and the wounding of some 55,000 others in the early 1990s.

But Croatia's case at the ICJ was much weaker than Bosnia's. And with the ICJ ruling last month that Serbia was not responsible for the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina and not liable to pay war damages, the Croatian case looks even weaker. Serbia was found guilty only of failing to prevent genocide in Bosnia and failing to help round up wanted war criminals.

Making Croatia's case weaker still is the fact that the UN's Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has not convicted anyone of genocide in Croatia, nor was genocide proved in any war crimes cases. The case for Bosnia was stronger, as genocide was proved in the eastern town of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were executed and for which several Bosnian Serbs have been convicted.

The case was never given its due by Croatian officials. The suit was filed eight years after the alleged crimes took place and the charges took up a meager eight pages and were written by a US lawyer.

Croatian authorities also appear to have shown less interest in the case over time, spending little time or effort collecting evidence and prompting Croatian lawyers to suggest that they initiate negotiations for an out-of-court settlement with Serbia. Even though Croatian officials have publicly rejected such an idea, Serbian lawyers claim that the two sides have already met and discussed the issue.

In particular, Ivan Simonovic, Croatia's representative in the case against Serbia, told local media he was skeptical about the outcome in light of the ICJ's ruling in the Bosnia case. He also recommends an out-of-court settlement.

But no sooner did talk about an out-of-court settlement arise than Serbia unexpectedly announced it would file a suit against Croatia, charging it with war crimes against Krajina and Slavonija Serbs in 1995, during the military operations "Storm" and "Lighting."

During those operations, Croatian forces overran the Republic of Serb Krajina populated with Croatian Serbs, and more than a quarter of a million Croatian Serbs escaped to Serbia and parts of Bosnia under Bosnian Serb control. Since then, the ICTY has indicted three Croatian generals for war crimes against Serbs, and the death of more than 150 civilians.

However, experts seems to think that Serbia is bluffing and that it will not file the counter-charges and is hoping instead to use the threat to strengthen its position for out-of-court settlement negotiations.

It was the same move Croatia attempted when it filed the case in 1999 when the ICTY launched an investigation into alleged war crimes committed against Croatian Serbs by the regime of then-president Franjo Tudjman. The Croatia government beat Serbia to the punch by filing its own charges first.

The blame game, however, has played out somewhat differently between Croatia and Montenegro, the other former Yugoslav republic that was in a state union with Serbia until May last year, when it declared its independence.

But justice tends to be less about justice than about strategic maneuvering for political or financial gain. Montenegro has distanced itself from the Serbian wartime aggression, and Croatia, in turn, was one of the first countries to recognize Montenegro's independence.

Montenegrin officials apologized for involvement in attacks on Croatian resort city of Dubrovnik, which caused several hundred civilian deaths and destroyed countless homes, and agreed to pay damages. Some estimates place the value of the damage at around €35 million. So far, Montenegro has paid up only €375,000 as compensation for looting the area's cattle.

However, the ICJ's ruling in the Bosnia case clearly made Montenegro feel it was no longer beholden to the nice neighbor routine, and officials there announced shortly afterwards that they would stop paying war damages to Croatia. But to keep things friendly, they announced that Croatia could possibly have dibs on the privatization of Montenegrin state companies.

Anes Alic is the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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