Serbia on Tuesday condemned Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, as the International Court of Justice held its first public hearings on the issue.
While Serbia’s chief representative, Dusan Batakovic, attacked the “flagrant violation” of international law, Kosovo’s foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, argued that 1990s brutality had invalidated any right by Belgrade to rule the disputed territory.
The then-province’s ethnic Albanian majority declared independence after almost nine years of United Nations post-war government. Kosovo gained rapid backing from the US and most European Union member states, yet without UN endorsement or Serbia’s consent.
Although the ICJ cannot make a binding ruling, Belgrade has sought the UN-backed court’s advisory opinion aiming to stem further international recognition and force Kosovo’s separatists back to negotiations for some “compromise solution”.
“Kosovo is the historic cradle of Serbia,” said Mr Batakovic, head of the delegation and Serbian ambassador to France, alluding partly to the medieval Orthodox monasteries dotted around the territory of 2m people. But he also described the ethnic Albanian secession declaration as “a major challenge to international order”, with potential echoes for any country with a disaffected minority region.
Mr Hyseni, however, said renewed negotiations would be “inconceivable” except between equal sovereign states. Undermining independence “would be highly disruptive and could even spark new conflict in the region,” he said.
Nato warplanes in 1999 ended a crackdown by Serb security forces under Slobodan Milosevic, president of Yugoslavia, which had killed nearly 10,000 and displaced nearly 1m Kosovo Albanians. Belgade today expresses regret over the former regime’s actions.
But Mr Hyseni said elected representatives last year had simply carried out the will of Kosovo’s people, resulting in a state now recognised by 63 others worldwide. Yet the UN Security Council remains divided, with Russia and China defending Serbia’s territorial integrity.
All five permanent Security Council members are to testify, along with 24 other countries, in nine days of hearings in The Hague, with the ruling by the 15-judge panel to come months later.
“Pursuing this case is a futile exercise on the part of Serbia,” said Muhamet Hamiti, Kosovo’s ambassador to the UK.
Yet the outcome “matters in one sense – that a lot of countries still sitting on the fence will [afterwards] opt to recognise the fact of Kosovo’s independence,” Mr Hamiti added. “Hopefully, this should also end of Serbia’s constant state of denial.”