THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The highest U.N. court cleared the Serbian state on Monday of direct responsibility for genocide in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, but said it had violated its responsibility to prevent genocide.
Bosnia had asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on whether Serbia committed genocide through the killing, rape and ethnic cleansing that ravaged Bosnia during the war, in one of the court’s biggest cases in its 60-year history.
It was the first time a state had been tried for genocide, outlawed in a U.N. convention in 1948 after the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews. A judgment in Bosnia’s favor could have allowed it to seek billions of dollars of compensation from Serbia.
ICJ President Judge Rosalyn Higgins said the court concluded that the Srebrenica massacre did constitute genocide, but that other mass killings of Bosnian Muslims did not.
But she said the court ruled that the Serbian state could not be held directly responsible for genocide, so paying reparations to Bosnia would be inappropriate even though Serbia had failed to prevent genocide and punish the perpetrators.
“The court finds by 13 votes to 2 that Serbia has not committed genocide,” she said. “The court finds that Serbia has violated the obligation to prevent genocide ... in respect of the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica.”
Some 8,000 Muslims from Srebrenica and surrounding villages in eastern Bosnia were killed in July 1995. The bodies of about half of them have been found in more than 80 mass graves nearby.
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, both accused of genocide over Srebrenica, are still on the run.
Earlier in the ruling, Higgins said the court found it established that Serbia “was making its considerable military and financial support available” to the Bosnian Serbs but that it had not known they had genocidal intent.
Serbia had said a ruling against it would be an unjust and lasting stigma on the state, which overthrew its wartime leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Milosevic died last year, just months before a verdict in his trial on 66 counts of genocide and war crimes was due.
The U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague has already found individuals guilty of genocide at Srebrenica. Bosnia used evidence from trials there for its case against Serbia.
In Bosnia, now split between a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb Republic, sentiment is split along ethnic lines, with Muslims hoping the court would brand Serbia an aggressor.
About 50 people demonstrated outside the court on Monday in favor of a genocide verdict.
“A ruling that Serbia committed genocide in Bosnia means everything to me,” said 34-year-old Hedija Krdzic who lost her husband, father and grandfather at Srebrenica. “Without such a ruling I fear that one day the massacre will be forgotten.”
It is almost 14 years since Bosnia first sued the rump Yugoslav state from which it seceded in 1992, but the case has been repeatedly held up by arguments over jurisdiction.
Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats followed Slovenia and Croatia in breaking away from Yugoslavia in April 1992, against the wishes of Bosnian Serbs, who were left as a one-third minority in what had previously been a Yugoslav republic ruled from Belgrade.
This triggered a war in which at least 100,000 people were killed.
Backed by the Yugoslav army, the Serbs captured two-thirds of Bosnia and besieged Sarajevo. Tens of thousands of non-Serbs were killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo and Beti Bilandzic in Belgrade