The International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, is currently hearing a possibly precedent setting case between Bosnia and Serbia. Unlike its usual cases, this isn’t a dispute over territory or land use. Instead, it’s a civil suit, brought by Bosnia, accusing the former Yugoslavia of genocide.
If successful, this will be the first time a civil ruling on genocide has been handed down by the World Court. With its roots in a bitter civil war, the Bosnian/Serbian conflict, and the resulting ethnic cleansing, leant itself well to this type of lawsuit, particularly after the death of one of its key participants – Slobodan Milosevic.
Normally, cases of genocide involve prosecuting the individuals responsible before the international war crimes tribunal. In this case, however, the entire region was fractured by the conflict, splitting into multiple states, opening the way for this type of suit.
Should the court rule in Bosnia’s favor, the Serbian state will suffer the stigma of having committed genocide, an outcome that would implicate the entire Milosevic government.
For Serbian citizens and their fledgling economy, that could mean also being saddled with hefty war reparations. Bosnia has asked the court to award damages for the loss of life and property. During the war, 100,000 people died, the majority of them Muslims, and entire Muslim towns and villages were destroyed, including their mosques and monuments. No figure was set.
Even though the case was filed thirteen years ago, it is only now wrapping up nine week’s worth of hearings. The entire process has been repeatedly challenged by the Serbians who claim that the court has no jurisdiction to hear this case. Their claim hinges on the fact that during the period in question, Yugoslavia was not part of the United Nations.
Lawyers following the case said defining genocide or proving it at this court might be different. “This is not a criminal trial and the levels of proof needed are not as high,” said Richard Dicker, a director of Human Rights Watch. “In any case, it will be hugely important to see how this court interprets and rules on genocide.”
As Charles Taylor gets ready to stand trial in Europe, one has to wonder, if Bosnians are successful does the same precedent hold true for Sierra Leone or even Darfur?