By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The Serbian president of the U.N. General Assembly accused his critics on Tuesday of trying to intimidate and pressure him into canceling a special meeting on international criminal justice that the United States and other nations boycotted.
The meeting last week was set up by former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who is serving as president of the 193-nation assembly, a largely ceremonial but high-profile post. Critics of the event said Jeremic organized it as an excuse to attack the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia - an allegation Jeremic rejected.
A spokeswoman for U.S. mission to the United Nations explained the decision to boycott the event by saying it was "an unbalanced, inflammatory thematic debate ... on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation."
Jordan and Canada also boycotted the event, while European Union countries sent junior diplomats. A number of key officials from international organizations and tribunals, including the U.N. war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda and the International Criminal Court (ICC), chose not to attend.
Without accusing any individual countries, Jeremic suggested the 11 officials from the international organizations and tribunals were pressured not to attend, adding that he, too, had been under pressure to cancel the debate entirely.
"Unfortunately, these ladies and gentlemen refused to come to this debate," Jeremic said. "So we worked with those who accepted, given that I wouldn't balk under pressure to cancel what I believe is a debate on a critically important topic."
He added: "Somebody obviously thought that I could be embarrassed and intimidated into giving it (the debate) up."
Jeremic said that the fact that the tone of the debate was more critical than supportive of the ICC, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and other war crimes tribunals was because those who would have supported those courts chose not to attend the U.N. session.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic was among those who spoke. He hammered away at the Yugoslavia 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."
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. More than 60 have been convicted, 15 have been acquitted and 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.
Nikolic, the most outspoken critic of U.N. war crimes tribunals at last week's debate, stirred controversy after taking office last year by denying that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces constituted genocide, rejecting a ruling by the U.N. tribunal.
The massacre, Europe's worst atrocity since World War Two, helped to galvanize Western powers into launching air strikes on Serb forces to bring the 1992-95 Bosnian war to an end.
Among those who avoided last week's debate, Jeremic said, were presidents of the ICC and the Rwanda and Yugoslavia tribunals, head of the U.N. Office of Legal Affairs Patricia O'Brien, head of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth, and former chief prosecutor for the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals Carla Del Ponte.
"How did it come about that all of them at the end of the day couldn't be with us, couldn't be with the member states on April 10?" he said. "We're talking about too big a number ... just to put it down to chance, that they just couldn't make it."
Except for the Yugoslavia tribunal president, who refused to attend, the others gave various reasons for their decision not to participate, including scheduling conflicts, Jeremic said.
A number of U.N. diplomats from Western countries have criticized Jeremic as divisive. Earlier this year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized for the performance of a Serbian military song in the General Assembly that activists said was associated with massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Jeremic was asked about that incident again on Tuesday. He replied that he was "deeply offended" by a reporter's suggestion that "a song that is next to sacred to an entire nation is an offensive and scandalous song."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
(This story was corrected to replace ICC head with Yugoslavia tribunal chief in paragraph 16)