Bosnia on Monday accused the state of Serbia-Montenegro of genocide during the Balkan wars, seeking a precedent-setting ruling from the UN's highest judicial body that could open the way for billions of dollars in compensation.
To win, Bosnian lawyers must persuade the 16-judge International Court of Justice that genocide occurred in Bosnia, that Serbia was responsible for the ethnic cleansing campaign of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, and that the state had the specific intent to eradicate a distinct community.
It is the first time a country is sued for humanity's worst crime. If found guilty, Serbia would suffer an indelible stain in history, and its government -- even though it ousted Slobodan Milosevic's regime in 2000 -- could be ordered to pay treasury-straining damages.
As many as 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia's secessionist war in the early 1990s when the Yugoslav federation disintegrated.
Croatia has a similar case pending against Serbia, and submitted a claim for US$29 billion. The Bosnia suit mentioned no figure, and the court would decide later if Belgrade should pay reparations and how much.
The case "seeks to establish responsibility of a state which, through its leadership, and through its organs, committed the most brutal violations of ... the most sacred instruments of international law," Bosnian representative Sakib Softic told the black-robed judges of the Great Hall of Justice in the neo-Gothic Peace Palace.
"Belgrade authorities have knowingly taken the non-Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina on a path to hell, a path littered with dead bodies, broken families, lost youth, lost future," said Softic, opening 10 days of arguments by his team.
Serbia will have equal time to respond before witnesses are summoned and counter arguments are heard.