THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- The International Court of Justice assembled for hearings Monday on a suit by Bosnia accusing Serbia of genocide, the first time an entire nation has faced trial for humanity's worst crime.
Although individual Bosnian Serbs have been convicted on genocide charges, the U.N.'s highest court will hear lawyers argue whether Serbia can be held responsible for the actions of its allies in the neighboring republic and its own leaders during Yugoslavia's brutal secessionist war in the early 1990s.
The stakes potentially include billions of dollars and history's judgment.
The session began with the swearing in of new judges by the court's newly elected president, British Justice Rosalyn Higgins, to the tribunal, also known as the world court. Higgins, 68, adjourned the meeting for a brief break after the judges took their oath.
The 16 judges, in black robes and white bibs, filed into their chairs behind a long raised table before an assembly of lawyers from the two nations and representatives of the diplomatic corps.
Oral arguments were being heard 13 years after Bosnia filed the lawsuit against Serbia-Montenegro -- the successor state for the defunct Yugoslavia -- charging it with a premeditated attempt to destroy Bosnia's Muslim population, in whole or part.
"Not since the end of the Second World War and the revelations of the horrors of Nazi Germany's 'Final Solution' has Europe witnessed the utter destruction of a people, for no other reason than they belong to a particular national ethnical, racial, and religious group as such," said the lawsuit's opening paragraph, drafted for the Bosnian government by American lawyer Francis A. Boyle.
It is one of the most complex and far-reaching rulings ever sought from the tribunal. Arguments are scheduled end May 9, and it likely will be a year before the judges deliver their verdict.
The case hinges on whether the court is persuaded that the Serbian state, and not just a group of individuals, had the specific intent to wipe out the Muslims of eastern Bosnia as a distinct community.
If the judges rule in Bosnia's favor, they would decide later whether to award financial reparations, which could total billions of dollars. The court's rulings are binding, and a refusal to abide by them could be referred to the U.N. Security Council for action.
Croatia, another republic that splintered from the crumbling Yugoslav federation, has a similar genocide case against Serbia pending at the world court.
Bosnian survivors started a vigil Monday outside the neo-Gothic Peace Palace where the court sits.
Bosnia submitted the lawsuit in March 1993, less than a year after Yugoslav-backed Serb paramilitary forces began attacking Muslim villages adjacent to Serbia. The Bosnians claim the Serbs intended to drive out the residents and create a Greater Serbia.
In a horrific roster of atrocities, the lawsuit cites case after case of the slaughter of civilians, mass rape, the systematic destruction of mosques and cultural heritage sites, and the creation of "extermination camps."
Within weeks, the court issued an interim order against "Yugoslavia and its agents and surrogates" to halt their campaign of "ethnic cleansing," including the murder, bombardment and starvation of the Muslims.
But worse was to come.
Two years after the documents were filed in The Hague, Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Gen. Ratko Mladic massacred about 8,000 Muslims during one blood-soaked week in the U.N.-declared safe haven of Srebrenica.
A separate U.N. court in The Hague -- the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia -- already has ruled that genocide occurred at Srebrenica.
The Yugoslav tribunal convicted two Bosnian army officers of complicity or aiding genocide, and several other suspects struck plea bargains to evade genocide charges. It is currently trying former President Slobodan Milosevic.
Mladic remains at large, branded one of the world's most-wanted fugitives. He is believed to be hiding in Serbia with protection from hard-liners in the Serb military and police -- loyalists of Milosevic.
In recent days, reports of Mladic's imminent capture circulated, but they have so far proven false. In Belgrade, the Blic daily newspaper said negotiations on his surrender were under way and that Mladic allegedly "refuses to make a deal" with authorities.
Bosnia faces a European Union deadline to surrender Mladic by Feb. 28 or have its membership talks with the bloc frozen. The EU's council of ministers scheduled a Monday meeting in Brussels, Belgium, to decide whether to punish Belgrade if Mladic is not captured.
"Serbia knows that negotiations may be suspended or may never be concluded if Belgrade fails to cooperate fully," chief U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said this week.
Genocide was not specifically outlawed until the 1948 Genocide Convention, prompted by the Holocaust.
The first genocide conviction came 50 years later, when a special U.N. court on Rwanda sentenced a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akayesu, to life imprisonment for complicity in the deaths of thousands of Tutsis. The Rwanda court has handed down a score of convictions since then.
Unlike the Rwanda or Yugoslav tribunals, the International Court of Justice does not try individuals. It deals only with claims among U.N. member states, but rarely in claims of this scope. In its 60 years, it has most often has adjudicated border or maritime disputes.
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