US boycotts 'unbalanced' UN justice meeting

UNITED NATIONS (AFP) - The United States on Wednesday led a boycott of a UN meeting where Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic launched a fierce attack on international war crimes tribunals.

The US mission condemned the meeting organised by the head of the UN General Assembly, Serbia's Vuk Jeremic, as "unbalanced" and "inflammatory."

Canada, Jordan and other countries, as well as top international legal officials also boycotted the event, which critics said was a bid by Serbia to divert attention from its role in the Balkans wars of the 1990s.

Mr Jeremic refused to let representatives of the families from the 1995 Srebenica massacre by Bosnian Serbs speak at the event, diplomats said.

Most European nations only sent low-ranking officials to the gathering where Serbia and Rwanda made outspoken attacks on the international tribunals set up after the Balkans wars and the Rwanda genocide.

Serbia's nationalist president told the 193-member assembly that prosecutors and judges at the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) were biased against Serb defendants who included late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"We wonder what kind of impartiality there is, when there is a systematic atmosphere of lynch-mobbing of everything that is Serbian," Mr Nikolic said in a speech lasting more than 40 minutes.

While acknowledging crimes in Srebenica and other places during the Balkan wars in which more than 140,000 people died, Mr Nikolic highlighted Serbia's bitterness at the ICTY's acquittal in November of Croat generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.

An ICTY appeals court acquitted the two, who were accused of killing hundreds of ethnic Serbs, in a move which Mr Nikolic said had cast a "long shadow" over the tribunal's work.

Rwanda's Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama told the meeting his country felt "betrayed" by the actions of the international tribunal that investigated the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans died.

Mr Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister, called the meeting after the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac in what many diplomats said was a blatantly political gesture.

"I firmly believe there should be no forbidden subjects in the General Assembly," Jeremic said at the start of the gathering.

The date of the meeting coincides with the sensitive 72nd anniversary of the founding of the Croatian pro-Nazi state. Several speakers have denied that the Srebenica massacre was genocide and Jeremic refused to let the Mothers of Srebrenica - a group representing families of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed in the city - take part.

Munira Subasic, president of Mothers of Srebenica, called Jeremic's speech and his exclusion of the victims "offensive." Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the US mission to the United Nations, said the United States "strongly disagrees" with Jeremic's move "to hold an unbalanced, inflammatory thematic debate today on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation and will not participate."

The international tribunals for Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia "have been critical to ending impunity and helping these countries chart a new, more positive future," Pelton added.

"We regret in particular that the way today's thematic debate and the related panel discussion are structured, fail to provide the victims of these atrocities an appropriate voice." The heads of the international tribunals and several top UN legal officials refused to take part.

However, UN leader Ban Ki-moon spoke at the meeting and strongly defended the growing role of international justice.

The international tribunals have "ushered in an age of accountability," Mr Ban told Mr Nikolic and Jeremic at the meeting.

"Those who stoke the flames of hatred and division - whether head of state, head of militia, individual soldier or individual citizen - have increasingly few places to hide," he added.