updated 2/26/2007 9:58:46 AM ET 2007-02-26T14:58:46

The United Nations’ highest court on Monday exonerated Serbia of direct responsibility for the mass slaughter of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnia war, but ruled that it failed to prevent genocide.

The International Court of Justice said Serbia also failed to comply with its obligations to punish those who carried out the genocide in July 1995, and ordered the government to hand over suspects for trial by a separate U.N. court.

The Serbian leaders “should have made the best effort within their power to try and prevent the tragic events then taking shape,” in the U.N. enclave, the scale of which “might have been surmised,” the ruling said.

However, it rejected Bosnia’s claim for monetary reparations.

The case before the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, was the first time an entire nation was being held to judicial account for genocide.

It specifically demanded that Serbia hand over for trial Gen. Ratko Mladic, the general who oversaw the Bosnian Serb onslaught at Srebrenica, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Serbia has said it has been unable to arrest Mladic since his indictment 12 years ago.

Key to the court’s findings was its conclusion that no one in Serbia, or any official organ of the state, could be shown to have had the deliberate intention to “destroy in whole or in part” the Bosnian Muslim population — a critical element in the 1948 Genocide Convention.

The judges found that Serbia, though it supported the Bosnian Serbs, fell short of having effective control over the Bosnian army and the paramilitary units that carried out the massacre. It also rejected Bosnia’s argument that the accumulated pattern of atrocities during the war, fueled by Serb nationalism and driven by Serbian weapons and money, was tantamount to responsibility for genocide.

Judges in unison
Unusually for such an important case, the judges were in accord, voting overwhelmingly in unison on the various points of the decision with only one or two dissenters.

By 13-2, the court found that Serbia had the power to foresee and prevent the Srebrenica slaughter — the worst in Europe since World War II — and failed to use it. Only the Serbian judge opposed the demand for Mladic’s transfer.

In Bosnia, the decision to clear Serbia of direct blame was met with anger.

“Shame on the people who reached such a verdict. How can they say not guilty of genocide when there are photos, video footage. They are again torturing our people, these mothers,” said Zinaida Mujic, representative of Mothers of Srebrenica association, who lost two sons in the war.

In Brussels, Friso Roscam Abbing, EU Commission spokesman, urged both sides to respect the judgment “to ensure justice and enable reconciliation to start.” The European Union has made Serbia’s hopes for membership conditional on its cooperation in handing over Mladic and other fugitives.

Court president Judge Rosalyn Higgins said it had been clear in Belgrade there was a serious risk of slaughter in Srebrenica, where some 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed.

Serbia’s claim that it was powerless to prevent the massacres “hardly tallies with their known influence” over the Bosnian Serb army, said the ruling.

Higgins said the tribunal relied heavily on the findings of the U.N. war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia, which has convicted two Bosnian Serb army officers on genocide-related charges for the deliberate slaughter in the U.N.-protected enclave.

“The acts committed at Srebrenica ... were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina as such, and accordingly ... these were acts of genocide” committed by Bosnian Serb forces, the judgment said.

Then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic also was brought to trial on genocide charges but died in the U.N. jail in The Hague last March, just weeks before his four-year-long trial was due to end.

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