UNITED NATIONS — The United States, Canada and Jordan boycotted a meeting on international criminal justice organized by the Serbian president of the General Assembly on Wednesday because it didn't include Bosnia's war victims and attacked the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
To protest the victims' exclusion, Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid al Hussein and Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador Christian Wenewaser hosted a press conference for two victims groups – the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Association of Witnesses and Survivors of Genocide – while assembly president Vuk Jeremic, the former foreign minister of Serbia, presided over the assembly meeting.
Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, who lost 22 close family members in the 1995 massacre by Bosnian Serbs, said she was allowed into the assembly meeting as "a silent observer" but felt the same way she did after losing her husband, sons and other loved ones – "I had rights to nothing."
She listened as Serbia's ultranationalist President Tomislav Nikolic, the main speaker, criticized the Yugoslav tribunal. She believed that Nikolic was denying the genocide in Srebrenica, so she said she put on a T-shirt she had brought as a gift for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon which said: "Srebrenica" and "Justice Is Slow But It's Reachable." Next to her, she said, was a banner highlighting the genocide in the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, Republika Srpska.
"All of a sudden I was surrounded by security of Vuk Jeremic" and the U.N. and escorted out of the conference room, Subasic said.
She said that the United Nations, which had failed to protect the men and boys of Srebrenica, appeared not to learn from its past, and she urged her own descendants and people everywhere to learn from the past "and love other people and don't hate anyone."
In a lengthy speech soon after, Serbia's Nikolic protested against the "lynch-mobbing of everything that is Serbian" and accused the Yugoslav tribunal of "selective justice" by seeking to punish Serbs while overlooking the crimes of Bosnians and Croats.
Jordan's Zeid, who was a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia and served from 2002 to 2005 as the first president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, said Tuesday he was encouraging other countries in the 193-nation General Assembly to boycott the meeting.
He expressed "indignation at the way the president of the General Assembly has exploited his position and this important theme, which is the Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation, for the purposes we suspect of launching an unmerited attack by the Serb Progressive Party against the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia."
"We believe it is our duty to create a space so the voices of the victims of the Bosnian war could also be heard," Zeid said.
Liechtenstein's Wenewaser expressed concern that Jeremic "is exploiting the General Assembly to pursue his own political goals, which is clearly not what he ought to do as the president of the General Assembly."
"He has refused to make this a comprehensive event that covers international criminal justice in all its aspects. He's interested in one tribunal and that's a complete distortion of what's been happening over the last 20 years," said Wenewaser, who also served as president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court.
Aware of the controversy, Ban gave his "full and unequivocal support" to all international tribunals in an opening speech and called on all countries to support and strengthen the system of international criminal justice.
"Supporting the tribunals and courts means respecting – and not calling into question – their independence, impartiality and integrity," Ban said. "It means implementing their decisions. And it means safeguarding them from those who seek to undermine them for reasons that may have more to do with politics than justice."
During the 1990s Balkan wars, Nikolic was deputy leader of the extremist Serbian Radical Party which was even more hardline than late strongman Slobodan Milosevic – who plunged the region into its ethnic conflagration. Nikolic was also a disciple of Vojislav Seselj, a firebrand right-wing politician who at the closing session of his war crimes trial at The Hague, Netherlands, last month retold the history of the war from a Serb perspective.
Seselj said that Serbs had been subjected to a "genocide" during the war. The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal has held that while atrocities were committed by all sides, genocide was only committed by Bosnian Serbs, including the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. Seselj told the court that Serb military action was justified to defend ethnic Serbs in Croatia.
Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said the United States would not participate in the "unbalanced, inflammatory" meeting which failed to provide victims of atrocities a voice.
Among those invited who declined to attend are David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice; Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch; President of the International Criminal Court Song Sang-Hyun and President of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court Tina Intelmann.
Richard Dicker, director of international justice at Human Rights Watch, wrote in the Huffington Post Tuesday that the creation of the Yugoslav tribunal nearly 20 years ago "moved the goal posts in enforcing fundamental human rights, and the broader efforts toward international justice are rewriting key rules of international relations and diplomacy."
He said a more constructive way has to be found to debate these and other lessons.
Associated Press Writer Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, contributed to this story.