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A nation on trial for its past

Serbia and Montenegro may become the first country to be found guilty of genocide.

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Serbia and Montenegro, already struggling to find its place in Europe, risks becoming the first state ever to be formally branded genocidal, as judges at the World Bank last week began hearing arguments in a Bosnian lawsuit over crimes committed during the war in the early 1990s.

The case could make Serbia, as the successor state to Yugoslavia, liable for tens of billions of dollars in reparations. But Bosnian Muslims say the suit's importance lies elsewhere, in creating an accurate and unchallengeable account of the conflict, which continues to poison regional politics.

"For our future, to have clean relations with our neighbors, we need to have a clear vision of our past and our future," says Sakib Softic, the lead Bosnian lawyer at the World Court in The Hague. "The international court has the authority, with its judgment, to finish up these questions from our past and move on toward the future."

While another international court in The Hague is trying individuals - including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic - for war crimes, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as the World Court is officially known, hears cases between states.

Bosnia must prove to the court not only that genocide occurred, through the policy of "ethnic cleansing," but that the Bosnian Serb militias committing it did so on the orders of Yugoslav government officials, and with their support.

The Bosnian side "seeks to establish responsibility of a state which, through its leadership and through its organs, committed the most brutal violations of ... the most sacred instruments of international law," Mr. Softic told the 16-judge panel in his opening statement last week.

When they present their oral arguments this week, Serbia's lawyers are expected to argue that the court has no jurisdiction over the case because when it was brought in 1993, the former Republic of Yugoslavia was not clearly recognized as a member of the United Nations, and thus not of the ICJ either.

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