THE HAGUE -- Can a state commit genocide? Should an entire nation -- not just its presidents, generals, and soldiers -- be held responsible for humanity's worst crime?
In one of the most momentous cases in its 60 years, the UN's high court will deliver its judgment today on Bosnia's demand to make Serbia accountable for the slaughter, terrorizing, rape, and displacement of Bosnian Muslims in the early 1990s.
If it rules for Bosnia, the International Court of Justice could open the way for compensation amounting to billions of dollars from Serbia, the successor state of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, although specific claims would be addressed later.
It also would be a permanent stain on Serbia in the eyes of history, regardless of any effort by Belgrade to distance itself from the brutality of those years.
Reflecting the complexities, the 16 judges have deliberated for 10 months since hearing final arguments. Officials at the World Court, as it is informally known, say reading out the summary of the judgment is likely to take three hours.
The court was created after World War II to adjudicate disputes among UN members, most often over borders or treaty violations. Its decisions are binding, without appeal, and enforceable by the Security Council.
The Bosnia case touches deep nationalist chords and arouses strong emotions. Among survivors expected to stand vigil outside the Baroque-style Peace Palace while the decision is read are women from Srebrenica, where some 8,000 men were killed in 1995.
The ruling comes 14 years after Bosnia first approached the court during the chaos of Yugoslavia's bloody disintegration. The political landscape has since changed dramatically, with Bosnia and Serbia separately seeking European Union membership.
"This will be a very significant judgment, both from the perspective of the aftermath of the conflict and for international law generally," said Andre Nollkaemper, director of the Amsterdam Center for International Law at the University of Amsterdam.
Other courts have ruled that acts of genocide occurred during the Bosnian war, when more than 100,000 people were killed in a Bosnian Serb campaign that gave the world the phrase "ethnic cleansing."
Two Bosnian Serb officers have been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. General Radislav Krstic is serving a 35-year prison term for aiding and abetting genocide, and Colonel Vidoje Blagojevic is appealing his 18-year sentence for complicity in genocide.
Milosevic died last year in his prison cell in the final weeks of his four-year genocide trial. Two other Bosnian Serbs accused of orchestrating atrocities, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, remain at large, and critics accuse Serbia of harboring Mladic.
But the World Court case, separate from the tribunal's deliberations, is not about individuals. Bosnia says the Serbian state itself must accept blame.
It argues that Serbia's nationalist ideology incited genocidal hatred, its financial and military aid to the Bosnian Serbs gave them the tools for genocide, and Yugoslav army officers actively participated in driving out Muslims.
"It is the accumulation of solitary crimes -- the dreadful repetition of evil acts -- that emerges finally, clearly, as the super crime of genocide," Bosnia's US advocate, Thomas Franck, told the judges last year.
Serbia says it's not that simple. Genocide, by definition, requires the clear intent to wipe out an ethnic or racial group, in whole or in part, in specific territories -- and Serbia says it never waged such a systematic campaign.
"A pattern of 'ordinary crimes' cannot be simply transformed into the crime of genocide," argued Sasa Obradovic, summing up Serbia's case last May. Rather, it must be "a specific crime, with a specific mental element."
Another problem is whether the court has jurisdiction in the matter. Legal specialists note that previous Bosnia-related cases have produced contradictory rulings.
If the judges claim jurisdiction, they must resolve a critical question -- whether the Bosnian Serbs were under Serb government control. That issue might have been resolved had the Milosevic trial reached its conclusion. But it was stopped when he died, and the massive amounts of evidence it heard are legally worthless.
The Yugoslav tribunal "has not been successful in establishing a proven link between the paramilitaries who did the killing and the government in Belgrade," said Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a historian at the Netherlands War Documentation Center and a professor of genocide studies.
The Bosnia-Serbia dispute is not a criminal case, and the standards of proof are looser than "beyond a reasonable doubt" required for a criminal conviction. To hold Serbia liable, it is enough that a majority of judges finds a "balance of probabilities."