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World Court Rules Kosovo Declaration Was Legal

July 25, 2010

By DAN BILEFSKY
New York Times
July 22, 2010

PRAGUE -- Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of
independence from Serbia in 2008 did not violate
international law, the United Nations’ highest
court said Thursday in a ruling that Kosovo
heralded as a victory but that legal experts
warned could spur separatist movements around the world.

Legal experts said that while the International
Court of Justice had ruled that Kosovo’s
declaration of independence was legal, it had
avoided saying that the state of Kosovo was legal
under international law, a narrow and carefully
calibrated compromise that they said could allow
both sides to declare victory in a dispute that
remains raw even 11 years after the war there.

Political analysts said the advisory opinion,
passed in a 10-to-4 vote by the court judges, is
likely to spur other countries to recognize
Kosovo’s independence. Of the 192 countries in
the United Nations General Assembly, so far only
69, including the United States and a majority of
European Union nations, have recognized Kosovo.

Reading the nonbinding opinion, whose political
consequences could reverberate far beyond Kosovo,
Hisashi Owada, president of the International
Court of Justice, said that international law
contained no "prohibition on declarations of
independence" and consequently that Kosovo’s
declaration "did not violate international law."

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership welcomed the court’s decision.

"This is a great day for Kosovo, and my message
to the government of Serbia is, ‘Come and talk to
us,’ -- Kosovo’s foreign minister, Skender
Hyseni, said after leaving the court, The Associated Press reported.

But Serbia was adamant that it would never
recognize what it had previously called a false
state, while Russia, one of its staunchest
allies, insisted that the court’s decision did
not provide a legal basis for Kosovo’s independence.

The Serbian foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, said
the ruling could make separatist movements
elsewhere "tempted to write declarations of independence."

The State Department said the ruling was "a
judgment we support," according to The Associated
Press. "Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future."

James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan expert at the London
School of Economics, said the court had trod
carefully in weighing the right of a people to
self-determination over the right of a sovereign
state to territorial integrity, and had decided
to sidestep the issue altogether.

"It has essentially said that Kosovo’s legitimacy
will be conferred by the countries that recognize
it rather than by the court," he said.

Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia
on Feb. 17, 2008, marked the culmination of a
showdown between Serbia and the West in which the
United States and a majority of European nations
said Serbia’s violent repression of Kosovo’s
majority ethnic Albanians under a former Serbian
president, Slobodan Milosevic, had forfeited
Serbia’s right to rule the territory.

Serbia and its ally Russia countered that the
declaration of independence by Kosovo was a
reckless breach of international law that would
inspire separatists everywhere. Last year, the
United Nations General Assembly, at Serbia’s
urging, referred Kosovo’s declaration to the
court, based in The Hague. Hearings began in December.

Analysts said that the legal legitimacy conferred
on the independence declaration by the court
could have profound consequences for global
geopolitics by potentially being seized upon by
secessionist movements in places as diverse as
northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh,
South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

But legal experts stressed that the court’s
studious avoidance of ruling on the legal status
of Kosovo as a state had been calculated to avoid
encouraging nationalist movements and left the
issue of a territory’s independence at the
discretion of the countries that chose to recognize it.

"The court invariably is very prudent and avoids
making political decisions," said Bert Barnhoorn,
an expert at the Asser Institute for
International Law, a policy organization in The Hague.

The panel’s judges -- split almost evenly between
countries that have recognized Kosovo’s
independence and those that have not -- have a
history of narrow and conservative judgments.

Major European powers and the United States have
been at pains to characterize Kosovo as a special
case that should not serve as a precedent for
other groups hoping to declare independence. But
in hearings last December in The Hague, Spain,
Russia and China -- all of which face
secessionist movements in their own borders --
argued forcefully that Kosovo should remain a
part of Serbia. China was so impassioned that it
made its first oral pleading to the court since the 1960s.

"If the I.C.J. opinion establishes a new
principle, an entire process of creating new
states would open throughout the world, something
that would destabilize many regions of the
world," President Boris Tadic of Serbia told the
Tanjug news agency before the ruling.

Mr. Milosevic, the former Serbian leader, revoked
Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 and fiercely repressed
ethnic Albanians, who make up most of its
population. Some turned to armed rebellion. NATO
intervened in 1999 to halt Mr. Milosevic’s
violent response to the rebels. After the war
ended, the United Nations administered Kosovo for
eight years, during which time it lingered in a
legal limbo. After the failure of a negotiated
settlement, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in February 2008.

Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris,
and Stephen Castle from Brussels
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