Bosnian activist Munira Subasic lost 22 close family members in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, yet she was barred from speaking at a U.N. meeting where Serbia's ultranationalist president attacked the international body's war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia which has been prosecuting leaders of the genocide.
A meeting on the subject of international criminal justice and reconciliation called by current U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic — a former Serbian foreign minister — quickly became a debate Wednesday that focused primarily on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
Jeremic was accused by human rights groups and some countries of using his position to turn the meeting into a forum for unfair criticism of the tribunal's work. The United States, Canada and Jordan boycotted the meeting, and Serbian President Tomslav Nikolic's attack on the tribunal was criticized by the European Union and others who spoke.
The Yugoslav 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 — a perspective that has been criticized by many Serbs. It was Europe's worst massacre of civilians since World War II.
Since she couldn't speak, Subasic said she put on a T-shirt she brought as a gift for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon saying "Srebrenica" when she believed that Nikolic was denying the genocide that had claimed the lives of her husband and beloved youngest son, Nermin. On it, she had added the words "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 ... and in a very curt manner they told me that I have to leave the room," Subasic told reporters.
Subasic blamed Jeremic, who had banned her organization, the Mothers of Srebrenica, from making a five-minute statement, for her expulsion. His spokesman Nikola Jovanovic said Jeremic doesn't give instructions to U.N. security and didn't seek to remove her.
The U.N. Security and Safety Service said Thursday that Subasic and another activist carried out "a short demonstration" by displaying T-shirts and small placards with anti-Serbian slogans in violation of U.N. rules and were "discreetly" escorted out of the building.
The U.S., Canada and Jordan boycotted the meeting because it didn't include Bosnia's war victims and gave Serbian officials a platform to attack the Yugoslav tribunal instead of focusing on the broader announced theme, the "Role of International Criminal Justice in Reconciliation."
To protest the victims' exclusion, Jordan's U.N. Ambassador Prince Zeid al Hussein and Liechtenstein's U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenewaser hosted a news conference for the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Association of Witnesses and Survivors of Genocide.
Zeid, a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia who served from 2002 to 2005 as the first president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court, encouraged other countries in the 193-nation General Assembly to boycott the meeting.
But it was impossible to say whether any did because Jeremic moved the meeting from the main General Assembly chamber, where all countries have nameplates and assigned seats, to a conference room where delegates sit anywhere. Jovanovic said 82 countries made statements, which continued into Thursday.
Zeid expressed "indignation" at the way Jeremic exploited his position and the important theme to provide an opportunity for others to launch "an unmerited attack by the Serb Progressive Party against the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia."
Wenewaser said he and Zeid had urged Jeremic to include the victims, which is especially important because of the U.N. involvement in Bosnia and the failure of U.N. peacekeepers to protect civilians in Srebrenica, and to look at the issues in a comprehensive and balanced way instead of "clearly driving a political agenda."
"Unfortunately, that has not been possible," he said.
The ambassadors also tried to get Jeremic to change the April 10 date of the meeting because it is the 71st anniversary of the founding of the pro-Nazi Croatian state, a fact mentioned by Nikolic.
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 were 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 Engelmann.
Aware of the controversy, U.N. chief 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.
But soon after, Nikolic delivered a lengthy attack on the Yugoslavia tribunal, saying it targeted Serbs, overlooked crimes by Croats and Bosnians, and made "unjust legal decisions based on untruths and rendered under political pressure."
"From the point of view of science and ethics, the Hague trials may be seen on a par with the processes held by the Inquisition," Nikolic said. "The proceedings against Serbs are motivated by punishment and revenge."
During the 1990s Balkan wars, Nikolic was deputy leader of the extremist Serbian Radical Party, which was even more hardline than the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic — who plunged the region into its ethnic conflagration.
Subasic said that two months ago a doctor at a laboratory doing DNA analysis of Srebrenica victims called and told her that they had found remains of her youngest son "that I loved the most" — two bones, one from one grave and another from a grave 25 kilometers (15 1/2 miles) away.
"I didn't give birth to a son without a head or arms or legs, but now I have to take him out that way," Subasic said.
She urged the world to make sure that mothers do not suffer the way the mothers of Srebrenica continue to suffer.
Subasic said she will know that she did something that made a difference in the world if her granddaughters and others learn from the past and have friends from different religions, ethnicities and countries.
"I think hatred is the worst thing," she said. "I don't hate anyone. I don't hate even those who perpetrated crimes, and those who killed my family."
Associated Press Writer Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, contributed to this story.