ICJ says Kosovan independence ‘not illegal’

In a rather surprising move, the International Court of Justice has ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 did not violate international law or UN Resolution 1244. But the decision was an interestingly split one: nine of the fourteen judges agreed with the advisory opinion, plus the president, while four votes against and there was one abstention: see the Balkan Insight report.

The decision is non-binding and is likely, as Florian Bieber argued earlier this week, also on Balkan Insight, to have its major importance not as a golden bullet but in the form of continued diplomatic negotiations towards establishing a working relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. Nevertheless, it seems likely to give added emphasis to the former, whose President was – rightly – calling for a ‘dignified celebration’ of the decision (since the two sides do need to work together on their common future, and avoiding a backlash both in Serbia as well as amongst Serbian citizens living in Kosovo is a fundamentally important means to achieve that). Serbia, which had brought the case to the ICJ, may well not in the short-term change its position of non-recognition of an independent Kosovo, but the long-term future of both within the European Union will essentially make such a perspective redundant as well as, potentially, providing for the means by which it can be dealt with – even if that is something to which the EU itself needs to adjust.

States which have refused to recognise Kosovo pending the ICJ’s decision may well not be that numerous, since many have actually, or potentially, secessionist movements already in existence on their territories (chiefly, Georgia, Moldova and Bosnia, but also encompassing Romania and Slovakia, not least given the background of the stridently nationalist noises coming from a right-wing Hungary [subscription required]). The full ICJ decision needs to be digested as regards precisely how much succour it might give to such movements, or grounds for fear amongst countries hosting them – but, as I argued last week, the practical circumstances in the background of Kosovan independence do provide hopes that this particular ICJ decision can be distinguished on its facts without paving the way for secessions and unilateral, unagreed border ‘adjustments’ elsewhere.

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