BELGRADE/SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Serbs expressed relief on Monday when the International Court of Justice cleared their country of genocide in Bosnia, while Bosnian Muslim and Croat leaders voiced disappointment at the long-awaited verdict.
The highest U.N. court said Serbia had violated its obligation to prevent and punish genocide, but had not planned it or carried it out in the 1995 Bosnian Serb massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica.
“It turns out there was genocide in Bosnia but it is not known who committed it,” Bosnian Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic commented sarcastically.
Besides heaping embarrassment on Serbia, a guilty verdict might have meant compensation claims in the billions. Bosnians who had long hoped for the truth about the 1992-95 war to be acknowledged felt cheated.
“We who were in Bosnia know what happened here right from the beginning of the war and I know what I will teach my kids,” said Bosnian Croat leader Zeljko Komsic.
Serb human rights campaigners said ultranationalists who deny war crimes, or claim all were equally guilty, would gloat.
Serbia’s caretaker Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica issued a statement which did not acknowledge any Serb guilt.
“The ruling ... is particularly important because it has freed Serbia of the serious accusation that it committed genocide,” he said. “Light must be shed on all war crimes and their perpetrators, and must be punished in a court of law.”
At least 100,000 people died in the fighting, three quarters of them Muslims and Croats. Bosnian Serbs using the might of the Yugoslav Army against their lighter-armed adversaries swept swathes of land clean of non-Serbs, culminating in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War Two, at Srebrenica.
“For all of us, the very difficult part of the verdict is that Serbia did not do all it could to prevent genocide,” Serbia’s pro-Western president Boris Tadic said.
“It is very important that the parliament as soon as possible adopts a declaration which will clearly condemn the crime committed in the region of Srebrenica,” he said.
Persuading parliament to pass such a resolution will not be easy. The ultranationalist Radical Party, the largest party in parliament, and the Socialists of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic both deny the Srebrenica massacre.
Aleksandar Popov of the Igman Initiative group for normalizing Serbia-Bosnia relations called the verdict a “symbolic slap” and predicted “gloating” by nationalists.
Serb reaction “shows a fatal lack of compassion,” he added.
For Bosnian Serbs who opposed the lawsuit filed by Bosnia’s Muslim-led government in 1993, the ICJ ruling established that their republic was not founded on genocide, as Bosnian Muslim leader Silajdzic argues, and should not be dissolved.
“This ruling sends a message that the survival of the Serb Republic is unquestionable,” said the speaker of the Serb Republic parliament, Igor Radojicic.
For people like 60-year-old Fatija Suljic, who lost her husband and three sons at Srebrenica, the ICJ’s ruling added insult to injury. It was “a disaster for our people,” she said.
The United Nations tribunal for former Yugoslavia indicted 19 people for Srebrenica, including Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Ratko Mladic. Both remain at large, their whereabouts now unclear.
The European Union froze talks with Belgrade on Serbia’s EU membership aspirations in May, saying it was not trying hard enough to arrest Mladic.
Tadic said Serbia’s continuing failure to extradite him would have “dramatic political and economic consequences.”
Nenad Canak, of Serbia’s new Social Democrat-Liberal Democratic coalition, said the ruling left him “speechless.”
”The only thing I can say is to remind you of the words of Primo Levi written on a wall in Dachau. “The man who denies Auschwitz is the same one who is ready to repeat it.”