The International Court of Justice on Monday for the first time called the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 an act of genocide, but determined that Serbia itself was not guilty of the enormous crime.
Nonetheless, it faulted Serbia, saying it "could and should" have prevented the genocide and, in its aftermath, should have punished the Bosnian Serbs who systematically killed close to 8,000 men in July 1995.
The ruling resulted from a civil lawsuit Bosnia had brought against Serbia, the first in which one country sued another for genocide.
The 15 international judges who held nine weeks of hearings and deliberated for nearly 10 months relied in part on evidence presented in criminal cases heard by the United Nations Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which has found two Bosnian Serb officers guilty of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre.
In the end, the lawsuit resolved Monday may have been the most complex case handled in the 60-year history of the World Court, which the United Nations set up to resolve legal disputes between states.
The ruling appeared to give some satisfaction — and frustration — to both sides. It freed Serbia of the stigma of being a genocidal nation and absolved it from having to pay war reparations, as demanded by Bosnia.
At the same time, Bosnia obtained what it said it wanted from the outset: "a recognition of Serbia's guilt."
During the war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a haven and promised to protect it. But in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overwhelmed 370 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers, seized control of the enclave and killed almost every Bosnian Muslim man and boy captured there.
That massacre led to the ruling Monday, which also stressed that other large-scale killings and abuse of Bosnian Muslims had taken place with the financial and military support of Serbia during the 1990s war that broke up Yugoslavia.
Judge Rosalyn Higgins, the court's president, read the ruling, which described the close ties between Serbia and the Bosnian Serb forces. It said that the leaders in Belgrade, and President Slobodan Milosevic above all, "were fully aware of the deep-seated hatred which reigned between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslims in the Srebrenica region," and that massacres were likely to occur.