UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States, Canada and Jordan boycotted a controversial meeting on international criminal justice organized by the Serbian president of the General Assembly Wednesday because it didn't include victims of the Bosnian war and attacked the role of the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid al Hussein and Liechtenstein's U.N. ambassador Christian Wenewaser announced that they would be hosting 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.
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 Serbian Radical 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, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly supported all international tribunals in an opening speech and called on all countries to respect the courts and not question their impartiality or try to undermine them.
But in a lengthy speech soon after, Serbia's ultranationalist President Tomislav Nikolic protested against the "lynch-mobbing of Serbia" and accused the Yugoslav tribunal of "selective justice" by seeking to punish Serbs while overlooking the crimes of Bosniaks and Croats.
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 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995. Seselj told the court that Serb military action was justified to defend ethnic Serbs in Croatia.
In Sarajevo, the head of the Mothers of Srebrenica, Munira Subasic, said she was coming to New York although she was not invited to speak at the assembly meeting.
"Vuk Jeremic has not thought of either Bosniaks or Croats," she said. "He only invited the Serb side and people who don't even know who is who in Bosnia."
Erin Pelton, spokesperson 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.