Croatia and Serbia cleared of genocide by International Court
One of the most bitterly contested questions left by the Balkan wars of the 1990s was resolved yesterday when Serbia and Croatia were both cleared of committing "genocide".
The ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague settled an outstanding claim arising from the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart and forced millions to flee their homes.
After the decision, Tomislav Nikolic, the president of Serbia, voiced the hope that "in the future Serbia and Croatia will have the strength to jointly resolve all that is hampering the possibility of establishing a period of lasting peace and prosperity".
Croatia and Serbia had both sued one another for alleged genocide. Croatia's case turned on the fate of the city of Vukovar, which endured three months of bombardment by Serbian irregular forces and the Yugoslav national army in 1991.
The assault on Vukovar began after Croatia declared itself independent. Tens of thousands of Croats fled the city and between 1,100 and 1,700 people were killed.
Croatia argued that the "attacks on Vukovar were directed not simply against an opposing military force, but also against the civilian population". The onslaught amounted to an act of genocide because the "aim" was the "destruction of the Croats of Vukovar".
But the ICJ rejected Croatia's case, concluding that the crucial element of an intention to destroy a specific ethnic group had not been proved.
Under the United Nations Convention of 1948, genocide is defined as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group".
The ICJ found that the aim of the assault on Vukovar had been to expel the city's Croats, but not destroy them. "Croatia has failed to substantiate its claim that genocide was committed," said Peter Tomka, the president of the ICJ, as he read out the verdict.
Serbia, for its part, accused Croatia of committing genocide by launching "Operation Storm" in 1995. During this military offensive, Croatia recaptured a Serb-inhabited region of its territory known as Krajina. In the process, about 200,000 Serbs were driven from their homes.
The crucial evidence was a meeting held on the Croatian island of Brioni between Franjo Tudjman, then president, and the country's military leaders. Serbia argued that the full transcript of this conversation showed the aim of Operation Storm was the elimination of the Serbs of Krajina.
But the ICJ rejected this interpretation.
"At most, the Brioni transcript shows that the Croatian military and political leaders envisaged that the offensive they were planning in Krajina would have the effect of causing the flight of the Serbian inhabitants of the territory," ruled the judges.
The "specific intent to destroy which characterises genocide" was missing from the Krajina offensive, found the ICJ.
The outcome of the case spares the EU the embarrassment of having one member state, Croatia, and an applicant member, Serbia, being found guilty of genocide.
Both countries accepted the verdict and said the court's decision marked the end of a bitter chapter of history.
"This marks the end of one page on the past - and I'm convinced we will start a new page on the future, much brighter and better," said Nikola Selakovic, the Serbian justice minister.
Vesna Pusic, the Croatian foreign minister, echoed this message, saying that the ruling would help towards "closing this historic chapter and moving on to a better and safer period for people in this part of Europe".
Croatia joined the EU in 2013. In a sign of how relations have warmed, Croatia now supports Serbia's application for membership. (© Daily Telegraph London)