BELGRADE, Feb. 27, 2006 (IPS/GIN) -- Hearings began Monday in a case where Serbia and Montenegro is charged with genocide, crimes of war and aggression in the 1992-95 conflict, the first time a country rather than its leaders has had to face charges of genocide.
"The case is of immense importance for my state," lawyer for Bosnia-Herzegovina Sakib Softic said as hearings began at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. The ICJ is the court founded by the United Nations (UN) to deal with disputes among states.
"It (the aggression and war) was like a man-made tsunami that destroyed the very essence of my country, where non-Serbs were taken down the road of hell through horrifying loss of lives, youth, property, towns and villages," Softic said. "If it is possible to recover at all, we'll need several generations to heal, reconstruct and build normal lives again."
Bosnia-Herzegovina launched the case against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in March 1993 while the war was still raging. It said the former Yugoslavia and its Belgrade-based army backed Bosnian Serbs in their genocidal effort to exterminate Bosniak Muslims and other non-Serbs.
The case now is against Serbia and Montenegro because that is what remains of former Yugoslavia.
The aggression in the 1990s led to the death of thousands, and the devastation of the economy of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosnia-Herzegovina government in Sarajevo has demanded $100 billion in compensation.
"This is a historic case," international law professor Vojin Dimitrijevic told IPS. "If pronounced guilty, Serbia and Montenegro will be the first state in history pronounced as genocidal by this court."
The war ended in 1995 and the wartime leaders are gone from the political scene, but Sarajevo refused offers by the new authorities of Yugoslavia, which became Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, for a negotiated settlement.
Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic fell from power in 2000. He faces trial for war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague.
"This is a highly, crucially important case," said Sulejman Tihic, Muslim member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina presidency that is now shared between Muslim, Croat and Serb leaders. "The case should bring truth, see that justice is done and help establish new relations of mutual trust between two neighborly nations, Bosnia and Serbia," Tihic told Belgrade media.
Sarajevo media view the case as already won and have called it the final punishment for Serbia.
But legal experts say it will be extremely hard to prove that a state, in this case what is now Serbia and Montenegro, together with Bosnian Serbs, had planned the genocide or extermination of one group.
"Such things are extremely hard to prove, despite all the events that took place in Bosnia," Dimitrijevic said. "There are no documents, records or any real things in writing that would indicate deliberate intention to exterminate non-Serbs."
Sakib Softic and legal experts in Sarajevo have said that proof could come from the sentences pronounced by the ICTY.
"Rulings in cases dealing with Srebrenica (in Bosnia-Herzegovina) clearly named genocide, in the cases of (Bosnian Serb commanders) Radislav Krstic and Vidoje Blagojevic," Softic said.
The two were found guilty by the ICTY of genocide when Bosnian Serb forces massacred up to 8,000 Muslim boys and men after overrunning Srebrenica in July 1995.
"Regardless of charges of genocide, the aggravating circumstances for Serbia's involvement and support to the Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) in the war might come from the material dealing with Ratko Mladic," military analyst Aleksandar Radic told IPS.
Former BSA general Ratko Mladic, who led the operation on Srebrenica, has been a fugitive from justice for years.
Serbia is under strong pressure to find and extradite him to face trial at the ICTY. Serbia faces cancellation of talks for joining the European Union if it fails to hand him over soon.
Military archives made available to the Serbian public in the past couple of weeks show clear connections between Mladic, his BSA and the army of former Yugoslavia.
But Serbian lawyer in the case Radoslav Stojanovic told IPS that "the state cannot be found responsible for genocide. It is extremely hard to establish the intention of a state, to define it. It is also gravely unjust to put the blame on the whole Serbian nation, people who live in Serbia, for the wrongdoings done in the name of Serbs in general."
Stojanovic and other international law experts say there are contradictions in the ICJ where Serbia is concerned.
When Serbia tried to launch a case against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing in 1999, the ICJ ruled that this was outside its jurisdiction because at that time Serbia was not a member of the United Nations.
"Serbia was not a member of the U.N. in 1993 as well (when war raged in Bosnia), and we'll try to dispute the jurisdiction of this court in this case now," Stojanovic said.
Serbia was expelled from the United Nations in 1992 due to its involvement in wars in Croatia and Bosnia. It was re-admitted only after Milosevic fell from power in 2000.
Croatian international law expert Ivo Josipovic told IPS that "any decision by the ICJ will have its place in the history of law, political history and history itself, as this court had no prior case dealing with the implementation of the U.N. conventions on prevention of and punishment of crimes of genocide."
The court will sit until May this year and is expected to pronounce its verdict by the middle of next year.