"Belgrade Has to Accept the Co-Responsibility"

For the first time, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has declared the Srebrenica massacre a genocide. An interview with Albin Eser, Director Emeritus of Germany's Max Planck Institute for International Criminal Law

For the first time, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has declared the Srebrenica massacre a genocide. An interview with Albin Eser, Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for International Criminal Law

Overview of the courtroom at the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, in The Hague, the Netherlands
The International Court of Justice finds that Serbia has violated its obligation under the Genocide Convention to prevent genocide in Srebrenica

​​The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Srebrenica massacre during the Bosnian war was genocide, but did not make Serbia directly responsible. What is the significance of this verdict?

Albin Eser: The question of how to judge the ruling depends on one's expectations. On one hand, the financial compensation Bosnia wanted hasn't been granted. But if, on the other hand, Serbia had hoped to be acquitted of any responsibility, it has lost out too. The court not only established that genocide was perpetrated in Srebrenica, but also that Serbia is not free from all responsibility for that killing.

To what extent is Serbia responsible for the genocide?

Eser: The court did not establish any direct participation in the genocide on the part of Serbia, as it was unable to prove beyond doubt that the financial and military aid granted to the Republika Srpska by the Belgrade government of the time was used to carry out the genocide.

But no less important is the court's judgement that in view of the well-known ethnic tensions, Serbia was obliged under international law to take appropriate measures to prevent the genocide. That is also a kind of responsibility, which should not be underestimated in legal terms.

For laypersons, though, the verdict has a certain ambiguity.

The Chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte
The Chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte - the court's verdict indicates it not just Del Ponte or the EU making demands on Serbia

​​Eser: I don't see it that way. The International Court of Justice has clearly ruled that although Serbia was not directly responsible for the mass-murder in Srebrenica, it did violate its obligations as a state. Above all, though, the ICJ has accused the current Belgrade government of violating its duty of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal and demanded that it extradites the Bosnian Serb leader Mladic.

But Carla del Ponte has been fighting for Mladic and Karadzic's extradition by Belgrade every day – to no end.

Eser: Now, though, Belgrade has it in black and white, as it were, that it's not only Carla del Ponte or the European Union making this demand, but also the supreme court of the United Nations. So Serbia will no longer be able to pretend it is not responsible for extraditing Mladic.

Bosnia will not receive any compensation. Is that not a sign that Serbia's responsibility isn't all that great after all?

Albin Eser (photo: Max Planck Gesellschaft)
Albin Eser

​​Eser: True, there won't be any compensation in the financial sense. But Bosnia really has obtained satisfaction through the court's ruling of genocide. That shouldn't be underestimated politically.

What are the political consequences of the ruling for the Serbian government?

Eser: First of all, Belgrade has to accept this co-responsibility. Secondly, the government is obliged to do everything it can to bring the people behind the genocide to justice. In specific terms: it has to hand over Mladic. If Serbia doesn't abide by these obligations, it will face sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. I really hadn't expected such a far-reaching ruling from the ICJ.

Interview: Alain-Xavier Wurst

© Alain-Xavier Wurst 2007

Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Albin Eser is Director Emiritus of the Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, Professor Emeritus of Criminal Law in Freiburg, and was a judge at the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag.

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire


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