The International Court of Justice (ICJ) turned the page on a long-running dispute between Serbia and Croatia on Tuesday, dismissing mutual accusations that the countries engaged in genocide during Yugoslavia's breakup in the 1990s.
An estimated 20,000 people died during four years of conflict that followed Croatia's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
In 1999, Croatia lodged a complaint with the Hague-based court accusing forces under the command of the Yugoslavian government of exterminating hundreds of people in Vukovar, a city in eastern Croatia, and other towns in 1991.
By 2008, Yugoslavia had broken up into seven separate nations and the genocide accusation was redirected at Serbia. When the ICJ batted down the Serbian government's objections to the charge in 2008, Serbia filed a counterclaim that focused on the forced displacement of Serbs in Croatia at a later stage of the war.
Under the UN's Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the crime of genocide is defined by the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical racial or religious group as such."
Judge Peter Tomka acknowledged Tuesday that, although terrible breaches of international law occurred in both Serbia and Croatia — including executions and mass expulsions — neither country had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that genocidal intent existed.
Tomka said Croatia "has not established that the only reasonable inference was the intent to destroy in whole or in part the [Croatian] group."
Tomka similarly stated that killings and displacement that occurred during Croatia's "Operation Storm" in 1995 did not meet standards set forth in the convention. "Acts of ethnic cleansing may be part of a genocidal plan, but only if there is an intention to physically destroy the target group," Tomka said.
Serbia alleged that some 200,000 ethnic Serbs were expelled during Operation Storm, which saw Croatia successfully retake territory lost earlier in the war.
The final vote to reject Croatia's claim came in at 15-2, while Serbia's was denied unanimously.
Given the difficulty of proving intent in alleged genocide crimes, the ruling did not come as a surprise to many in the human rights community.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia director, pointed out the ICJ had largely based its findings on earlier rulings by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which indicted no individuals for the crime of genocide. Unlike the International Criminal Court or ICTY, the International Court of Justice settles disputes between countries and does not directly address the crimes of individuals.
"The possibility of ethnic cleansing existed, but whether it was an intended consequence of genocide crimes knowingly committed is a separate or harder issue to prove," Dalhuisen told VICE News.
"Both sides saw this as politically significant, it has to some extent of propagandistic significance, but the real issue is about access to justice and reparations," Dalhuisen said. Neither country, he added, has answered questions about those still missing from the conflict.
Serbian and Croat politicians appeared to welcome the decision that ended a legal process initiated 16 years ago.
"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," Serbian Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic said at the Hague.
Croatia's Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic said the ruling would help in "closing this historic chapter and moving on to a better and safer period for people in this part of Europe."
There was concern — among both Serbian and some European leaders — that the ICJ's findings could have stood in the way of the country's application for European Union membership. Croatia joined the EU in 2013.
Some victims groups were disappointed with the decision. Miodrag Linta, a member of a Croatian Serb refugee association in Serbia, told AFP that crimes committed against ethnic Serbs "were part of a plan by Croat leaders to destroy the Serbs."
Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at the University of Illinois who represented Bosnia at the ICJ, said he thought the Croat case was stronger and should have been accepted.
"I think it's shameless that the court did not find genocide intent at the massacre in Vukovar," Boyle told VICE News.
In 2007, the ICJ ruled that Serbia had violated the genocide convention by not stopping the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were executed in 1995 by Bosnian Serb armed groups in the town of Srebrenica. The court did not, however, determine that Serbia had committed the act of genocide.
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