Serbia, acquitted last week of the charge of genocide, has been handed a unique opportunity. If Serbia was not complicit in the effort to exterminate Bosnian Muslims in the first half of the 1990s - as the International Court of Justice ruled Monday - Serbia should have no reason to keep on protecting the two Bosnian Serb leaders who did have genocide in mind: Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. If Serbia's hands are clean, it should turn these two men over to the international tribunal in The Hague.
Clean hands? The court says so - but the court was looking through a very narrow window. Serbia clearly had a major role in the atrocity-riven war in Bosnia, and it encouraged ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats. But atrocities and ethnic cleansing are not genocide, and what the court ruled was that there was no evidence that the government in Belgrade had set out to commit that particular crime.
Genocide happened, the court said - in the silver-mining town of Srebrenica, in July 1995, where 7,000 or more Muslims were killed by General Mladic's men. (Again, a narrow view - scores of thousands of civilians were killed in Bosnia during the war, but perhaps only Srebrenica fit a textbook definition of genocide.) Belgrade could have stopped it, and didn't, the court said. But there is no proof that it was a result of national Serbian policy, according to the ruling, and therefore Bosnia today cannot collect reparations from Serbia.
The court's decision raises an interesting question: What is the culpability of the so-called Republika Srpska, set up by Bosnian Serbs and, under the Dayton accord of 1995, one of the two entities that make up Bosnia today? Bosnian Serbs did commit genocide. What should the penalty be? On the other hand, neither the Bosnian Muslims nor Croats have clean records, either - but no court has issued a finding of genocide against them.
This was the first case in which one country sued another on a complaint of genocide. The legalistic result isn't very satisfying, though it's better than a resumption of war. Clearly, it's too early for historians to sort things out, or for the survivors to be mollified by historical findings. Turks and Armenians are still arguing bitterly - or, more often, refusing to talk to each other at all - over events that took place back in 1915. The war in Bosnia is an unhealed wound; courts alone can't resolve the damage.
But they can tackle a piece of it, and that makes this is an opportune moment for Serbia to recognize its responsibility as a nation in good standing - and hand over the men who brought so much death to Bosnia.