Ruling on Serbia Individualizes the Blame

The UN's highest court cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war. Benjamin Pargan comments that Serbia now has less excuses to hand over war crimes criminals

Bosnian Muslim man Huseinovic Hamdija says his prayer near grave stones at the memorial center of Potocari, near Srebrenica, 100 kms northeast of Sarajevo (photo: AP)
The slaughter of as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica was central to Bosnia's arguments that Belgrade was deeply involved in the country's bloodshed

​​Once again it was a clear "yes-and-no" and "as-well-as" solution by the so-called international community. The disappointment of the predominantly Muslim war victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina is understandable. Many of them were displaced, tortured, raped by reservists and guerrilla fighters from Serbia and Montenegro.

Relatives of those Muslim Bosniaks murdered in the Bosnian city of Bijeljina, for example, will never understand this verdict. Their family members became victims of special forces and killer commandos from Serbia right in the first days of the war - with the blessing of the government in Belgrade at the time.

Serbia's links to the Bosnian Serbs

The like occurred in several cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was repeatedly proven in individual trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. The president of the International Court of Justice, Rosalyn Higgins, indirectly confirmed this with her remark that Serbia militarily and financially supported Bosnian Serbs to a considerable degree.

Where does this significant support give way to direct responsibility for the genocide? Either this question could not be conclusively clarified or – more likely – the judges at the highest UN court didn't have enough courage and endurance to do so, regardless of possible political consequences.

Positive aspects of the ruling

Nonetheless, the judgment by the international court also has a positive side. Up to now, a large part of the Serbian political establishment has repeatedly spoken of a sweeping prejudgment of the Serbs.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, left, and his military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic in Mt. Jahorina, Bosnia (photo: AP)
Serbia has often demand that the blame for the war crimes be individualised - now Belgrade will face increasing pressure to hand over war criminals

​​Mostly nationalist-minded powers used these pre-fabricated formulas far too often to dish up stories for their population about alleged forced and unjust collective guilt of the Serbs. When it came to questioning their own role in the war, many Serbs accepted these argumentation aids with thanks.

A conviction of Serbia would have given such populist pied pipers even more impetus. It was, after all, the first time that a nation was formally accused of genocide.

Now, there is one excuse less for the up till now rejection of handing over Serb generals accused of war crimes to the tribunal in The Hague. The verdict is also a significant step in the direction of individualizing the blame – a demand also often made by Serbia.

The government in Belgrade is more likely to interpret this judgment as a clean bill of health. The international community and particularly the European Union has to now make clear all the more that cooperating with the tribunal in The Hague is still the requirement for approaching the transatlantic community. Otherwise, the rather meagre efforts of the Serbs so far to punish war criminals will peter out even more quickly and silently.

Benjamin Pargan

© Deutsche Welle 2007

Benjamin Pargan is an editor for DW Radio's Bosnian department.

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