Serbia on Wednesday challenged the right of the U.N.’s highest court to hear a suit by Bosnia accusing the former Yugoslav republic of genocide, in the first case of a country standing trial for humanity’s worst crime.
Opening their defense, lawyers for Serbia-Montenegro, the successor state for the defunct Yugoslavia, also argued to the International Court of Justice that the Balkan wars were waged by ethnic groups — Serbs, Muslims and Croats — not countries.
“This dispute is between two sovereign states, neither of which existed when the conflict began,” Tibor Varady said. “It was an ethnic conflict, and the dividing lines between the warring parties were ethnic lines” that did not coincide with the states carved in the aftermath, he said.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is seeking a precedent-setting decision from the 16 justices that would hold a state — Serbia — responsible for genocide for the first time, rather than individuals. Bosnia concluded 10 days of arguments on Tuesday, and Serbia will now have equal time to respond.
A ruling in Bosnia’s favor could open the way for claims of billions of dollars in compensation. Croatia has a similar case pending before the U.N. tribunal, also known as the world court.
Serbia tried to distance itself from the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, which orchestrated the wars in the early 1990s that killed an estimated 200,000 people.
Milosevic was ousted in 2000 and extradited to the U.N. war crimes tribunal, a separate court that also sits in The Hague. His trial for genocide and other war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo has gone on for four years.
Lawyer: Case presents a paradox
“I find myself in a paradox. I must defend a regime to which I was opposed,” said Radoslav Stojanovic, the head of the legal team, repeatedly referring to his country as “democratic Serbia.”
Stojanovic said the court, which adjudicates disputes between U.N. member states, is not empowered to hear Bosnia’s suit because Serbia was not a U.N. member at the time.
The United Nations suspended Yugoslavia in 1992, and Serbia-Montenegro regained entry in 2001.
Bosnia submitted its suit to the world court in 1993. In a preliminary ruling three years later, the court struck down Serbia’s challenge to its jurisdiction, but said Belgrade could raise the issue again at a later date.
Stojanovic urged the parties to abandon the legal proceedings and seek a “diplomatic solution,” arguing that any ruling by the court would inflame tensions.
“I fear this will result in an increase of political extremism,” no matter what the court decides, he said.
Varady told the judges in the century-old Peace Palace that the case brought by the government in Sarajevo did not represent all of Bosnia, which comprises a Muslim-Croat federation and an autonomous Serbian Republic. The Serbian Republic opposes the suit.
Bosnian lawyer: Too few punished
Serbia’s lawyers also began chipping away at many of Bosnia’s allegations of mass murders, calling them exaggerations and reports based on unreliable witnesses, although they acknowledged that crimes were committed.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia already has ruled that genocide occurred in Bosnia. Two army officers have been convicted of complicity in genocide for the massacre of 8,000 Muslims at the U.N.-declared safe zone at Srebrenica in July 1995.
The world court, however, is not bound by the rulings of other courts and must decide the genocide issues for itself.
Summing up Bosnia’s case on Tuesday, Thomas Franck told the court his country was not seeking collective punishment for the people of Serbia.
But “when the state commits a great evil, it cannot be allowed to escape responsibility by the punishment of a few leaders,” he said.