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People lay flowers on crosses at Vukovar's memorial cemetery, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of Vukovar. The border city saw intense fighting in 1991. AP/Press Association Images

Serbia did not commit genocide in Croatia

The case was heard at the International Court of Justice.

TODAY IN THE Hague, a 16-year legal battle between Croatia and Serbia has come to an end.

The UN’s highest International Court of Justice (ICJ) today hands down its ruling in a long-running genocide case, seen as a landmark decision that could re-open wounds between the former foes.

ICJ chief judge Peter Tomka has ruled that Serbia did not commit genocide in the Croatian War of Independence.

“Croatia has failed to substantiate its claim that genocide was committed” by Serbia, Tomka said as he read the verdict in the landmark case at the Hague-based International Court of Justice.

What happened?

In 1999, Croatia brought a case to the ICJ against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which became Serbia and Montenegro, which in turn became the separate nations of Serbia and Montenegro) alleging that Serbia had breached Article 9 of the Conventuion on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

The accusations made by Croatia surround the 1991-1995 Croatian War of Independence. Croatia says that during the war, Yugoslavian forces engaged in “ethnic cleansing” as a form of genocide. As many as 20,000 people died in the conflict and 400,000 forced to seek refuge.

However, Serbia has counter-sued, alleging that Croatia’s counter-offensive in the war led to an effective genocide of ethnic Serbs.

What is at stake?

SERBIA CROATIAN SERBS A Croatian Serb woman holds a candle near to a placard with photos of Serbs missing during Croatian military offensive. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Zagreb wanted judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation for damage “to persons and properties as well as to the Croatian economy and environment… a sum to be determined by the court.”

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.

Serbia has already been angered by the acquittal of the commander of the Croatian offensive in 2012 by the Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

What is likely to happen?

Pixsell 17/02/2014 Vukovar water tower is one of the most famous symbols of Vukovar and the suffering of the city and the county in the Battle of Vukovar and the Croatian War of Independence. Marko Mrkonjic / PIXSELL Marko Mrkonjic / PIXSELL / PIXSELL

This is the hardest part to answer. Genocide as a crime is both incredibly serious and incredibly difficult to prove.

In 2007, the ICJ ruled that genocide had taken place in 1995, at Srebrenica in neighbouring Bosnia, when almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves by Bosnian Serb troops that overran a UN-protected enclave. But that is the only such recognised instance in the 69-year history of the court.

Serbia and Croatia have both said that whatever is ruled, they will accept it. With the neighbouring countries two of the stronger economies in the Balkans, the ruling will have a massive bearing on their relations, which could impact the region.

Croatian Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic did not want to speculate, but has said before that Zagreb’s main goal was to “present what happened in the war and that was aggression against Croatia.”

“Expectations have already been met,” through the case being presented at the ICJ, Orsat added.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said: “This will be one of perhaps the most important events for our bilateral relations with Croatia.”

“It will probably be the end of a process that has lasted for 15-20 years (and) will put an end to both sides’ fight to prove who the worst criminal is.”

“Maybe we’ll have an opportunity to leave the past behind and turn towards the future,” Dacic said.

With reporting from AFP

Read: Khmer Rouge leaders found guilty of crimes against humanity

Read: ‘We were woken by these piercing screams’: Survivors remember the horror of Auschwitz

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