Kosovo on Thursday won a significant victory in its bid to be recognised as an independent state at the United Nations when the International Court of Justice ruled that its 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law.
In a landmark judgment that may have implications for separatist movements across the globe, the ICJ delivered a ruling that amounts to a major blow for Serbia, which has been resisting Kosovar independence for a decade.
In a 10-4 vote by judges meeting in The Hague, the ICJ said international law contained “no …prohibition of declarations of independence’’ and therefore Kosovo’s declaration “did not violate general international law”.
News of the court’s decision prompted celebrations in the Kosovo capital, Pristina, where people drove through the streets waving Kosovo, US and British flags and shouting “USA, USA!”
The US was quick to urge that Serbia and Kosovo set aside their differences and move forward. The Obama administration and its allies are hoping the judgment will now encourage more states to recognise Kosovo, which currently has diplomatic relations with 69 countries, and needs a total of 100 to be recognised at the UN.
“We call on all states to move beyond the issue of Kosovo’s status and engage constructively in support of peace and stability in the Balkans, and we call on those states that have not yet done so to recognise Kosovo,” said Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state.
Kosovo was quick to declare that the ruling would compel Serbia to deal with it as a sovereign state. “I expect Serbia to turn and come to us, to talk with us on so many issues of mutual interest, of mutual importance,” said Skender Hyseni, foreign minister. “But such talks can only take place as talks between sovereign states.”
However, Serbia expressed disappointment about the judgment. “Serbia will never recognise the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo,” the country’s president, Boris Tadic, told reporters. “The government will now consider further steps”.
Thursday’s judgment was an important moment in Kosovo’s bid for independence. In 1999, Serbia lost control over Kosovo when a Nato campaign ended a two-year war between Serbia and ethnic Kosovo Albanians, and put in place a UN administration and a Nato-monitored ceasefire.
In 2008, Kosovo declared independence, and was immediately recognised by the US and most other western states. But Serbia rejected this, as did its ally Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Others – such as Spain and China – have also been opposed to recognition on the grounds that it will legitimise an act of secession, with implications for ethnic minority issues within their own states.
Western diplomats say the latest decision has significance on many fronts, not least whether Serbia can move towards membership of the European Union.
“The Serbians have always been negative about Kosovo’s declaration of independence and that won’t change,” said an EU diplomat. “The question now is whether Serbia will continue to wage that battle at all costs; or whether it will tone down its hostility and engage in the kind of practical co-operation that should lead to EU membership.”
The other major implication is the message it may send to secessionist movements around the world. According to Edwin Bakker of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in the Netherlands, Thursday’s ruling is significant because it blesses an act of secession of a kind not seen in almost 40 years.
“For the first time since the break-up of Pakistan in the mid-1970s, we are seeing a country becoming independent, despite the strong opposition of the state from which it is separating,” he says. “This ruling will strengthen separatists around the globe. Cases that have been confronted with very brutal repression may feel that their chances for an independent state have increased.”
Mr Bakker argued that separatist movements comparable to the Kosovo case are limited. He suggested that the ruling would boost radical separatist elements in the Basque country in Spain, and in Cyprus.
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