Not Guilty

After years of deliberations and challenges over competency, the International Court of Justice rejected charges of genocide pressed against Serbia by the Muslim-dominated government of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the civil war in that country:

“Serbia has not committed genocide, through its organs or persons whose acts engage its responsibility under customary international law,” says the verdict, posted on the ICJ website in its entirety. Furthermore, Serbia has “not conspired to commit genocide, nor incited the commission of genocide” and “has not been complicit in genocide.”

The ICJ does blame Serbia for failing to prevent genocide (sic) in Srebrenica, but the verdict says that arresting Ratko Mladic and fully submitting to the ICTY would “constitute appropriate satisfaction” and rejects any claims for payment of compensation.

Puncturing Prejudice – Not

News of the verdict were received in Sarajevo like a cold shower. Thousands of Muslims demonstrated against the court in front of the Bosnian parliament. Bosnian Muslim politicians and press could not hide their disappointment.

Sharing in their anger and frustration were numerous activists, reporters and commentators in the West, whose moral credit has been “heavily deposited in the Bank of Collective Serbian Guilt” (Deliso). For example, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a US government-funded propaganda vehicle, reminisced fondly over “Bosnia’s uphill battle” in the World Court, clearly disappointed in the final verdict. An ethnic Serb reporter writing for Time magazine made the absurd claim that the ICJ’s decision “has roiled relations between the groups that warred against each other back in the 1990s,” and suggested things would have been better had Serbia been convicted.

A headline in the Sydney Morning Herald over a Reuters story about the verdict screamed, “We know what happened, Serbians.” A less hysterical headline above an AP report in the Indianapolis Star was representative of most American press: “Serbia cleared of genocide, but blamed for letting it happen.”

Marlise Simons, the New York Times reporter whose coverage of the ICTY was a textbook case of Serbophobia, chose to spin the verdict by focusing on the ICJ’s decision that genocide indeed took place. Many agency reports also took this tack, declaring that “Serbia failed to prevent genocide” or “Srebrenica deaths were genocide.”

The Guardian, leader of the Serbophobic pack in the UK press, sneered at the verdict, its editors trying to spin it thusly: “An important precedent has been established: where a state is in a position to exercise a positive influence or de facto authority to stop genocide taking place, it is under a positive obligation to do so.”

BBC’s correspondent in Belgrade noted the collective “sigh of relief” at the verdict, but speculated that ICJ’s affirmation that Serbia helped Bosnian Serbs during the war “appears to support the Bosnian government’s argument that the events in Bosnia did not amount to a civil war but involved foreign aggression.” Yet the verdict itself explicitly rejects this!

One of the Reuters reports on the verdict contained the following version of Bosnian “history,” found with minor variations in every other news report this week:

“At least 100,000 people died in the fighting, three quarters of them Muslims and Croats. Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, swept swathes of land clean of non-Serbs, culminating in the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the U.N. ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica.”

The Times of London quoted a Muslim woman demonstrating in front of the Peace Palace, which houses the ICJ in The Hague: “This is terrible – I saw with my own eyes who started this war and who kept up the aggression. It was the Serbs”

Such ignorance, prejudice and hatred is so well entrenched, those who harbor it are simply shrugging off the ICJ verdict as irrelevant. Facts cannot be allowed to get in the way of cherished mythology.

‘For All of History to Know’

This being the Balkans, there is a fair bit of irony involved. Monday’s verdict came as a result of the case filed in 1993 on behalf of the Izetbegovic regime in Sarajevo by Francis Boyle, a professor of law in the US. Boyle is a bit of an international ambulance-chaser, attracted – judging by his resume – to high-profile issues with much publicity. To his credit, he appears to believe most of them. For example, in August 1995, he wrote:

“Bosnia has already won this World Court lawsuit. All that Bosnia must do now is to see this lawsuit through to its ultimate and successful conclusion. It is inevitable that the World Court will rule that the rump Yugoslavia and its surrogate Bosnian Serb armed forces have committed genocide against the People and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At that time, the claims of the Bosnian People for genocide will be vindicated for the entire world to see and for all of history to know.”


Even though the attempt of Bosnian Muslim leaders to blame Serbia for the war has been rather decisively quashed by the ICJ, Muslim member of the Bosnian presidency Haris Silajdzic has already began spinning the verdict. He now argues that Serbia’s acquittal could only mean the Bosnian Serbs were guilty of genocide, and therefore the Bosnian Serb Republic would be illegitimate and illegal. This just so happens to fit his political platform for centralization of Bosnia under a Muslim-dominated government.

Far more disturbing is the fact that ICJ’s verdict claims the ICTY – an ad hoc tribunal set up by the Security Council without proper authority – is a legitimate court of law for trying individuals suspected of genocide. The World Court based its assumption that genocide took place in Srebrenica on two ICTY verdicts against Bosnian Serb officers. More specifically, the parts of the verdict holding Serbia “in breach” of the Genocide Convention interpret its “lack of cooperation” with the ICTY as “failure to punish perpetrators” of genocide.

However, ICJ’s verdict also undermines the keystone of ICTY’s prosecution arguments. ICJ’s official press release contains the following portion of the verdict:

“…the Court finds that it is established by overwhelming evidence that massive killings throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina were perpetrated during the conflict. However, the Court is not convinced that those killings were accompanied by the specific intent on the part of the perpetrators to destroy, in whole or in part, the group of Bosnian Muslims.”

Given that the ICTY based all its prosecutions of Bosnian Serb and Serbian leaders on the premise of a “joint criminal enterprise” to establish a “Greater Serbia” through genocide and conquest, it is now clear beyond any doubt that such a premise is nonsensical and invalid. Momcilo Krajisnik, one of the Bosnian Serb leaders sentenced to 27 years last fall for participation in the mythical “conspiracy” has basically been exonerated.

So has Slobodan Milosevic, for that matter. In the very same Guardian whose editors foam at the mouth at the very mention of Serbs, John Laughland welcomes the ICJ verdict as an event that “punctures a decade-and-a-half of lies in support of the doctrine of military and judicial interventionism.”

Tyranny or Peace

Laughland’s book about the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, aptly titled Travesty, was published in December 2006. Daniel Hannan of the Daily Telegraph blogged about it on the morning of February 26, before the ICJ verdict became public.

Hannan’s thesis is that international legal activists are trying to establish a supra-national, judicial dictatorship, replacing the established political order based on state sovereignty:

“How is justice served by substituting one unaccountable ruler for another… ? For many human rights lawyers, of course, the unaccountability of the system is precisely its attraction. They worry that, left to themselves, democratic politicians might pass illiberal laws. Surely, they argue, the world is better off if these demagogues are constrained by international rules. The international lawyers and human rights activists are undoubtedly acting from decent motives, believing themselves to be upholding humane values. But the fact remains that no one has elected them to anything. The world returning to a pre-modern concept of politics, in which law-makers are answerable to their consciences rather than their publics. Once we hand them that power, we create the opportunity for a dictatorship far worse than Milosevic’s.”

Judicial activism of this kind, whether by the ICTY, its global successor the ICC, or even the ICJ (as its shameful treatment of Yugoslavia in 1999 demonstrates) serves to legitimize Imperial aggression. It’s a tool of oppression, not liberation or justice.

As Laughland himself puts it, “Only when that hideous strength which flows from the hypocrisy of interventionism is sapped, will the world stand any chance of returning to lawfulness and peace.”

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.