Monday, February 27, 2006

The ICJ Tackles the Bosnian Genocide (About 13 Years Later)

Today, the ICJ opened public hearings in the long-anticipated case between Bosnia and Serbia over Serbia's alleged responsibility for genocide during the 1993-1999 Balkan wars. The ICJ has decided to make everything public and web-accessible. Hence, the opening argument of Bosnia's counsel is already available here.

This case has a long and torturous procedural history. It was first filed in 1993, and has been the subject of intermittent litigation for over 13 years. The basis of the ICJ's jurisdiction is Article IX of the Genocide Convention. The war is over and the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been prosecuting people for war crimes for over a decade now. So what is the point of this case now?

Although individuals have been held responsible, the focus of this case is state responsibility for genocide, which is a very different question. An ICJ judgment finding the government of Serbia committed genocide could have far reaching effects on long-term relations between the two states. Presumably, Bosnia and perhaps the international community could demand an apology and the payment of damages, etc. etc. So there might still be something at stake. Additionally, the ICJ might be able to provide useful and maybe authoritative interpretations of the Genocide Convention and its scope of state responsibility.

So this might be a useful and important case, certainly the most significant one the ICJ has faced in a long time. But the fact that the ICJ is considering the merits 13 years after the original fact reminds us that the role of an international court is, at best, remedial. It is almost never preventative nor can it provide much deterrence. Perhaps understanding the limits of international courts can help us appreciate the limited usefulness they have.

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