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The Balkans Needs An Army... Of Lawyers

Foreign Minister Jeremic says Belgrade will raise in court the issue of World War II-era atrocities by the Nazi puppet state in Croatia against Serbs.
Foreign Minister Jeremic says Belgrade will raise in court the issue of World War II-era atrocities by the Nazi puppet state in Croatia against Serbs.
The Netherlands-based International Court of Justice will soon receive its third case of alleged genocide from the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told state television this week that his government will sue Croatia over a 1995 offensive that sent tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs fleeing the country.

Jeremic's announcement came the same day the court accepted a case filed by Croatia against Serbia, ruling that it has jurisdiction in the matter. In that case, Croatia argues that Serbian attacks during the country's 1991-95 war of independence from Yugoslavia -- which left thousands dead or displaced -- amounted to genocide.

Croatia's suit marks the second time Serbia has faced allegations of genocide before the World Court. In February 2007, UN judges exonerated the country of direct responsibility for genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s. However, the court ruled that Belgrade failed to prevent the 1995 slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys near the Bosnian city of Srebrenica.

If the court accepts Serbia's case against Croatia, it will be the first time that Zagreb has faced such accusations.

The Serbian foreign minister also said his country plans to raise in court the issue of atrocities committed by the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), a Nazi puppet state, against Serbs during World War II. "Croatia has rejected our offers of reconciliation and efforts to leave the past behind," Jeremic added. "We will now turn to history to determine the truth so that we can have a joint future within the European Union."

This is pure political posturing, of course. Serbia has no legal basis for bringing before the court events that took place in 1942-44. After all, the UN convention on the prevention of genocide was only adopted in 1948. Even so, the move could backfire. Zagreb-based legal expert Vladimir Djuro Degan told RFE/RL that if Serbia tries to raise these old issues, it will weaken Belgrade's contention that today's Serbia is not responsible for actions committed before contemporary Serbia joined the UN in 2000.

Nonetheless, Serbia will apparently persist, and not only as a tit-for-tat response to Croatia's case but also at the urging of Serbs displaced from Croatia. "Serbia has been under pressure from those who were forced to leave Croatia," Belgrade-based analyst Simeon Pobulic says. "Nobody can deny this. There are more Serbs from Croatia in Serbia than there are in Croatia."

World Court judges might want to brush up on their Balkan history, since these suits are not likely to be the last ones coming before the court. It wouldn't be much of a surprise if Kosovo filed a case against Serbia over genocide allegations stemming from the violence before the 1999 NATO intervention in the region. If that happened, Serbia would likely counter with a case against Kosovo claiming that Serbs were expelled from the region over the last 20 years or more. It might be interesting to find out if a country can sue another country that it does not recognize.

Last year in Sarajevo, after the World Court exonerated Serbia of direct responsibility for alleged genocide in Bosnia, some politicians argued that the Muslim-Croat entity of the federated Bosnian state should file the same case against Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serbian entity of the federated Bosnian state. Officials in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, quickly threatened to counter with a suit of their own. If that came to be, Bosnia would be the first country in the world to sue itself for genocide -- twice. Luckily, these irresponsible ideas seem not to have gotten off the ground.

Maybe such suits are a sign of progress in the Balkans. After all, it is better to battle in court than to fight on the battlefield. Maybe the age-old creed of an eye for an eye is being replaced by a more civilized one -- an allegation for an allegation. It might not be very elegant, but it is a lot easier to live with.

It seems clear that the only winners in any of these cases will be the lawyers. Most experts viewed Bosnia's claims against Serbia as the most substantial and the court rejected them. The other cases, to one extent or another, are essentially politically motivated and will certainly come to political ends. Even Croatian lawyer Anto Nobilo told RFE/RL the latest cases have no merit: "Serbia is responsible for a lot of war crimes committed in Croatia, but there was no genocide -- those crimes did not reach the level of genocide. At the same time, the Croatian Army committed war crimes during Operation Storm, but they were far from being genocide."

I imagine that after the Balkans passes through this phase of legalistic confrontation, it will move on -- finally -- to direct talks that can move its countries toward European integration. For this to happen, though, leaders must be willing to face historical truths in their entirety, rather than simply citing by rote the bits of it that suit their purposes. The dueling accusations merely serve to intensify ethnic divisions in the region.

A wise observer once wrote that it is as if everyone in the Balkans is watching the same historical movie, but they all entered the cinema at different times. When will someone turn on the lights?

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL