Is ethnic cleansing genocide? According to the UN’s International Court of Justice, not always. In dismissing competing claims from former Yugoslavia republics Serbia and Croatia accusing each other of genocide, the forced removal of populations only amounts to genocide when such a move is made with the intent to destroy the population:

The United Nations’ highest court ruled on Tuesday that neither Croatia nor Serbia had committed genocide against each other’s populations during the wars that accompanied the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Peter Tomka, president of the International Court of Justice, said the forces of both countries had committed crimes during the conflict, but that the intent to commit genocide — by “destroying a population in whole or in part” — had not been proven against either country. …

Croatia filed its case against Belgrade in 1999 and Serbia its counter-case against Zagreb only in 2010.

“Croatia has not established that the only reasonable inference was the intent to destroy in whole or in part the (Croatian) group,” Tomka said of Serbia’s campaign to destroy towns and expel civilians in Slavonia and Dalmatia.

Rejecting Serbia’s counterclaim, he said Croatia had not committed genocide when it sought to drive ethnic Serbs from the province of Krajina.

“What is generally called ethnic cleansing does not constitute genocide,” he said. “Acts of ethnic cleansing may be part of a genocidal plan, but only if there is an intention to physically destroy the target group.”

That’s a curious — and likely controversial — ruling. Technically, the term “genocide” specifically refers to mass murder on the basis of ethnicity, but the meaning has expanded in political use. Forced relocation certainly falls within that usage, as does rape and other war crimes. Those other war crimes are still crimes even if they’re not classified as “genocide,” though, which the UN seems to be at least implicitly acknowledging in this ruling. The ICJ seems intent on preserving the narrower and more accurate definition.

In fact, the ICJ vote wasn’t even close. Croatia lost their case 15-2, while Serbia lost unanimously — and one of the judges was Serbian. The case puts an end to legal claims from both states against each other, which Tomka noted as a good opportunity for both to improve relations. The ruling strips from both states the ex post facto justification for the wars, according to one expert quoted by NBC:

“What’s really at stake is both states trying to justify their wars,” said Eric Gordy, a professor at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.”The strongest arguments they have to say they are justifying their wars is that they were defending their citizens against genocide,” he added.

It might also reflect on the NATO intervention in the war, although the only real impact of that would be on its historical perspective. NATO, led by the US, intervened to prevent the potential genocides that Serbia and Croatia accuse each other of seeking. Even if a genocide didn’t occur, over 130,000 people got killed in the Balkan wars, which certainly underscores the need to intervene to bring the worst European war since World War II to an end.

That’s not to say that the ICJ won’t pursue war crimes from the Balkans War. Last week, the ICJ upheld two life sentences for the Srebrenica massacre that saw 8,000 people slaughtered in what was supposed to be a UN peacekeeper safe zone. Those charges explicitly call that massacre a genocide: