The United Nations’ highest court has ruled that neither Croatia nor Serbia committed genocide against each other’s populations during the Balkan wars that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Peter Tomka, president of the International Court of Justice, said on Tuesday that many crimes had been committed by both countries’ forces during the conflict, but that the intent to commit genocide – by “destroying a population in whole or in part” – had not been proven against either country.
“Croatia has failed to substantiate its claim that genocide was committed” by Serbia, Tomka said earlier as he delivered the verdict in the landmark case at The Hague-based court.
A 17-judge bench ruled that the acts committed by the Serbs had not intended to “destroy” the Croatian ethnic group in certain areas of Croatia claimed by Serb secessionists, but to “move them by force”.
Al Jazeera’s Katarina Drlja, reporting from the Hague, said that while there were “some elements of dissatisfaction” on the case from both Serbia and Croatia legal teams, the verdict also offered “encouragement” to both countries to cooperate on finding the missing victims.
Zagreb dragged Belgrade before the ICJ in 1999 on genocide charges linked to Croatia’s war of independence in 1991-95 following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
Serbia was accused of ethnic cleansing as a “form of genocide”, leading to large numbers of Croats being displaced, killed or tortured and their property being destroyed.
Croatia had sought financial compensation.
About 20,000 people died in the conflict, one of several bloody wars that shook the Balkans in the 1990s.
Belgrade responded with a counter-suit in 2010, saying some 200,000 ethnic Serbs were forced to flee when Croatia launched a military operation to retake its territory.
Following Zagreb’s counter-offensive, called Operation Storm, the proportion of ethnic Serbs in Croatia shrank from 12 percent to four percent.
Following the verdict, Serbian PresidIent Tomislav Nikolic voiced hope for lasting peace in the region.
“I 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 in our region,” Nikolic told journalists.
Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said she hoped the ruling would contribute to “closing this historic chapter and moving on to a better and safer period for people in this part of Europe.”