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War crimes unpunished

Sandra Krstović explores why tensions are resurfacing between the countries of the former Yugoslavia

It takes years if not decades to rebuild relations between countries formerly at war, but citizens of the former Yugoslavia have begun to bury the hatchets. The governments of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina - the nations most affected by the Yugoslav Wars in the early '90s - have worked tirelessly to restore the relations. But a ruling passed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the Hague tribunal) in November 2012 has brought them to old lows.

The Hague tribunal acquitted Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač of war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Storm in Croatia's Krajina province in the summer of 1995. The acquittal stated that the Croatian forces aimed only at military targets and not at civilians, reversing their previous convictions and sentences of 24 years and 18 years, respectively, for the crimes.

The ruling was greeted with euphoria in the generals' homeland, where people danced and waved flags in celebration. But across the border in Serbia, there was bitterness and disbelief. The acquittal leaves nobody responsible for the 220,000 Serbians forced to leave the Krajina region, or for the hundreds killed in the military offensive, Operation Storm.

Old wounds

The Yugoslav Wars ended in December 1995, and the establishment of the Hague tribunal by the UN Security Council two years earlier, in 1993, signaled that war criminals would be brought to justice.

The focus of the tribunal was on Serbia's former president Slobodan Milošević, politicians Vojislav Šešelj and Radovan Karadžić and military chief Ratko Mladić, and also on Croatia's Gotovina and Markač. The court has convicted, or is in the process of trying, the four Serbian former leaders where they are held responsible for the crimes committed against Croatians and Bosnians. But at who should the finger be pointed at for the crimes committed against Serbs during Operation Storm?

The Hague tribunal's verdict surprisingly leaves no Croat convicted for crimes committed against Serbs during the war. The court maintains that no one is denying that the war crimes occurred, but rather that there was no organised plan for the ethnic cleansing of Serbs. Or, as executive director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue David Harland put it: "Too bad if you were a Serb victim of any crime in the former Yugoslavia."

Many Serbians feel let down by the acquittal of the Croatian generals. Recent UCL graduate Sava Pantelić says: "Regardless of their nationality, all persons responsible for the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s should pay for their crimes. The acquittal of generals Gotovina and Markač leaves their victims without justice."

Not only that, there are also well-founded fears in the region that former tensions could resurface as a result of the Hague tribunal rulings. "Serbo-Croat relations must improve and international governments are exerting influence on this issue as no one wants an uncertain situation in the Balkans," says Nikola Šuša, a final year student at Richmond University.

A week after the acquittal of Gotovina and Markač came another blow to Serbia: the decision to also acquit Ramush Haradinaj, the former Kosovo prime minister who had been held responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Kosovo in 1998. Serbia's prime minister Ivica Dačić said both rulings "belittle the Serb victims". Meanwhile Serbia's president said "the tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling, [which] will continue to destabilise the situation in the region and open old wounds."

Hidden agenda

The controversial acquittal has been linked by many to Croatia's forthcoming admission to the EU in July 2013, and it has reinforced Serbian convictions that the Hague tribunal is a politically biased court. Andrej Sovrović, a third year Politics with Eastern European Studies student at UCL, says: "The Hague tribunal has once again displayed that it is highly prone to political manipulations and that it lacks objectivity as well as equal standards for all parties involved in the war. The decision has reminded us that law and justice are rarely the same in today's world."

But there's no ill-feeling about Croatia being the first former Yugoslav state to be accepted into the Union among the country's neighbours. "I believe it will be beneficial in terms of European integration for other nations in the region," says Nikola. Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have been granted candidate status, while Bosnia-Herzegovina is considered a potential candidate. Still, Croatia might have caught the last train to join. As a result of the eurozone crisis, the EU is likely to close the door to significant enlargements in the Balkans.

Justice, please

In April, a debate will take place on the work of the Hague tribunal over the past 20 years. It was scheduled by Vuk Jeremić, Serbia's former foreign affairs minister and the current president of the UN General Assembly, and it is hoped that it will shed some light on the recent rulings.

But the question remains: if the court could not find proof of a joint criminal enterprise against Serbs, on what grounds can it prove its existence against Bosnian Muslims and Croats, which two Bosnian Serbs, Mladić and Karadžić, are charged with?

The ruling leaves Serbs alone responsible for committing many of the war's worst crimes and has interrupted the rebuilding of the two countries' relations. Instead of fulfilling its duty of reconciling the states, the Hague tribunal has only encouraged a war by political means and amplified nationalistic sentiment in the Balkans. What's more, if the two Croatian generals and the Kosovo prime minister are indeed not guilty of the ethnic cleansing of Serbs, then what is certain is that someone else is escaping the hands of justice.

The former Yugoslavia: a brief history

The borders of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia changed several times over the course of the 20th century, but most recently comprised the socialist republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia, brought together under one president.

Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims lived in unity from the end of world war two until civil war broke out in 1991 as a result of ethnic and political tensions. The Yugoslav Wars, which ended in 1995, left Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia impoverished with hundreds of casualties, thousands of displaced civilians, demolished towns, hyperinflation,and nationalist governments in place.

After years of rebuilding, foreign aid and numerous elections, the three countries were starting to get back on their feet by 2000. Democracy was introduced, investors were less shy, the economies stabilised and the nations started to slowly revive their ties.

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