By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United States boycotted as "inflammatory" a meeting on international justice on Wednesday organized by a Serbian politician who heads the U.N. General Assembly - a session some nations say was intended merely to complain about the treatment of Serbs in war crimes tribunals.
The meeting and panel discussion were set up by former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is serving as president of the 193-nation assembly. Some U.N. diplomats have privately accused Jeremic of using the General Assembly to promote his own career and his home country.
Jeremic told Reuters in an interview that he considered the event a success, but added it was "regrettable" some important countries like the United States did not participate.
European and other Western nations have said Wednesday's session on international justice was a thinly veiled attempt to attack the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which Serbia has criticized. Jordan and Canada joined the United States in boycotting the debate.
"The United States strongly disagrees with the decision of the president of the General Assembly to hold an unbalanced, inflammatory thematic debate today on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation and will not participate," said Erin Pelton, spokeswoman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
"We believe that ad hoc international criminal tribunals and other judicial institutions in 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 said in a statement.
Pelton added that it was especially problematic that the day's events "fail to provide the victims of these atrocities an appropriate voice."
A senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity that Jeremic's decision to organize the meeting on April 10 - the day that Croatia's Nazi puppet state was established in 1941 - ensured that the "whole event took on a Serbian feel."
He added that Jeremic had refused to change the date after he was requested to do so by a number of delegations. Jeremic confirmed that to Reuters, but made clear he considered it an appropriate date that called attention to Nazi-era crimes.
'VERY DELICATE TOPIC'
"This is obviously a very delicate topic, international criminal justice," Jeremic said, adding it was the first time the General Assembly had debated it. He said about 82 countries either spoke or associated themselves with the position of a regional bloc presented during the debate.
There are "lessons to be learned with the aim of having a more perfect international justice in the future," he said.
"I find it highly regrettable that some important members of the international community, like the United States, chose not to be a part of the debate," he said.
Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, told a small group of reporters that Serbia's approach to the session on international justice was "almost an impeachable offense" - ostensibly referring to Jeremic's largely ceremonial post as the head of the General Assembly.
Since it was set up in 1993, the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has indicted 161 people for crimes stemming from the wars that shattered the Yugoslav federation, of whom 15 have been acquitted. Several dozen suspects remain on trial.
Serbia and its ally Russia have sharply criticized the tribunal over recent decisions to free two Croatian generals and a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon defended the war crimes tribunals, the International Criminal Court and other methods of ensuring accountability.
"The system of international criminal justice has ... given voice to victims and witnesses," Ban said.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic hammered away at the Hague tribunal in a 45-minute speech to the assembly, telling participants that the "prosecution has been favored over the defense" and the court was guilty of the "most flagrant violation of human rights."
Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said Nikolic was well known as a denier of the Srebrenica genocide. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic, who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity and other war crimes.
Jordan, Britain and others complained that the victims of Srebrenica had no voice in Wednesday's debate.
Croatian Ambassador Ranko Vilovic also criticized the session, saying, "Truth, justice and reconciliation were not the values for which this debate was organized."
Some diplomats say Jeremic may be jostling to become the next president of Serbia, an allegation he brushed aside in his interview.
Envoys say that if he does not get Serbia's presidency, he is likely to try to become the next U.N. secretary-general, a position that is expected to be filled by an Eastern European.
U.N. diplomats say Jeremic's name has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Ban after his term ends in December 2016. While Russia would support Jeremic, U.N. diplomats said there were less divisive candidates from Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
The European Union's 27 member nations are attending the event but sending junior diplomats.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)