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Can a nation commit genocide? The Hague to hear Serbia case

Generals and politicians have been convicted of genocide, but the U.N.'s highest court will consider today whether a nation - in this case Serbia - can be guilty of humanity's worst crime.

The stakes potentially include billions of dollars and history's judgment.

Thirteen years after Bosnia filed the case with the International Court of Justice, its lawyers will lay out their lawsuit against Serbia and 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, also known as the world court. Arguments are scheduled to take six weeks, and it likely will be a year before the 16 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 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.

The Bosnia case is the first to be heard under the world court's new president, British Justice Rosalyn Higgins, 68, who also is the only woman among the U.N.-elected judges.

Hundreds of Bosnian survivors will start a vigil today 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 next 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 more than 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.

Genocide was not outlawed until the 1948 Genocide Convention, prompted by the Holocaust.

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