THE HAGUE (Reuters) -- The UN's highest court has ruled it had jurisdiction to examine Croatia's accusation that Serbia committed genocide in the Croatian 1991-95 independence war.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that Serbia was bound by the 1948 Genocide Convention and that the tribunal had jurisdiction in the case up until at least November 2000 when Serbia became a member of the United Nations.
The 17-judge court said it would examine Serbia's objection that it cannot be held accountable for any breach of the genocide convention prior to its creation as a state in April 1992.
"We are still considering all options including out of court settlement and filing a countersuit," Serbia's Justice Minister Snezana Malovic told journalists in Belgrade. "However, we hope that the court's final decision will be in Serbia's favor."
In a suit filed in 1999, Croatia is seeking reparations from Serbia on the grounds that the Belgrade authorities were liable for ethnic cleansing committed against Croatian citizens, including killing, torture, displacement, and destruction of property.
"This ruling is a great legal success for Croatia...however this is just the first round," Croatia's Justice Minister Ivan Simonovic told the state news agency Hina in The Hague.
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said it was of the utmost importance to investigate all those who masterminded and perpetrated the atrocities in Croatia, and for Serbia to face its recent past.
"The policy of [the late Serbian strongman Slobodan] Milosevic, which aimed to create the Great Serbia, caused huge suffering to the Croatian people," he said on the occasion of the 17th anniversary of a three-month siege by Serb forces of the Croatian town of Vukovar.
Serbia objected to Croatia's suit, arguing it was not a member of the United Nations and therefore not a party to the UN court when the 1999 lawsuit was filed and that it was not bound by the genocide convention. It also denied genocide took place.
The UN court noted that Serbia said it would take on the international obligations of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, including its participation in international treaties, in an April 1992 declaration to the UN.
It ruled this represented a notification of succession to the obligations of the genocide convention and that Serbia was bound by the treaty, granting the court jurisdiction to hear the case. The court has yet to set a date for full proceedings.
Croatia fought a four-year independence war against rebel Serb minority backed by Belgrade, that claimed some 20,000 lives.
In the case of Bosnia's genocide lawsuit against Serbia, the ICJ in 2007 cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for genocide that took place in 1995 in Srebrenica but found it responsible for not preventing genocide.
About three-quarters of the 100,000 people killed in the 1992-95 Bosnian war during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia were Muslims and Croats.