BERLIN -- The United Nations' highest court ruled yesterday that Serbia failed to prevent the massacre of Muslims during the Bosnian war, but was not directly responsible for the atrocities, ending a landmark case in which an entire nation was tried for committing genocide.
The decision, which was closely watched by countries facing allegations of war crimes, was viewed by Serbia as a vindication for its role in the 1992-1995 war. The ruling angered Bosnian leaders and ended their efforts to win reparations over the killing of about 7,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.
The court did find that the army of Bosnian Serbs had committed genocide and that Serbia had "known influence" over them. The 13-2 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague blamed Serbia for not taking "any initiative to prevent what happened or any action on its part to avert the atrocities."
The murders in Srebrenica were the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. The town had been declared a haven by U.N. peacekeepers until it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.
The ruling, which took more than two hours for Judge Rosalyn Higgins to read, comes as Serbia is under international pressure to arrest Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general accused of orchestrating the massacre. Mladic and former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic have been indicted for crimes against humanity but have been at large for years. The failure of Western governments to locate Mladic and Karadzic and arrest them has led many Bosnians to charge that the West is unsympathetic to the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims.
The court ordered Serbia to turn Mladic over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The judges ruled, however, that because Serbia's government did not deliberately intend to "destroy in whole or in part" the Muslim population, Bosnia would not be entitled to billions of dollars in reparations.
"Financial compensation is not the appropriate form of reparation for the breach of obligation to prevent genocide," the court said.
Reaction to the verdict underscored differences between Serbia's moderates and nationalists over dealing with the court and the U.N. war crimes tribunal. Many Serbs consider Mladic a hero. In a veiled reference to the demand for Mladic's arrest, Serbia's President Boris Tadic said if the hardliners don't cooperate with the international community the country will face "dramatic political and economic consequences."
The decision is also likely to exacerbate tensions between Bosnia's predominant Muslim population and the largely autonomous Serbian entity within Bosnia known as Republika Srpska. Since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia was formalized by a peace agreement in 1995, Bosnia has lingered as an unsettled patchwork of Muslim, Serb and Croat nationalist ambitions still presided over by international peacekeepers.
"I am stunned," Hedija Krdzic, who lost her husband, father and grandfather in Srebrenica, told reporters Monday outside the court. "This is terrible. I saw with my own eyes who started this war and who kept up the aggression. It was the Serbs."
Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative on Bosnia's three-member presidency, told Bosnian television that Serbia escaped a genocide conviction but that the country must "accept political, moral and material responsibility." He added that Serbia violated the spirit of 1948 Genocide Convention by not preventing mass ethnic killing or punishing those involved.
These sentiments were echoed by Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of Bosnia's presidency, who told state television: "I don't know whether the issue is a lack of evidence or a wrong estimate. Genocide was committed in Bosnia in 1992 and every person who has a different opinion is running away from truth. I know what I will teach my child."
The ruling suggests that Serbia will likely not examine its role in instigating a war that killed about 200,000 people and introduced the eerie euphemism of "ethnic cleansing." The nation has long portrayed itself as a victim of the West, an attitude which hovered over the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian president, who died in his cell at The Hague in March weeks before his war crimes trial was to have ended.
Jeffrey Fleishman and Zoran Cirjakovic write for the Los Angeles Times.