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.


Kosovan independence: ICJ decision soon

Balkan Insight has spotted that the International Court of Justice will announce its advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence next Thursday, at 3pm.

The case, brought by Serbia, which rejects Kosovan independence as illegally constituted, is, of course, unlikely to be resolved next Thursday. Many discussions are yet to be held and the Court’s opinion provides one more landmark stage in this process. A genuinely reform-minded regime in Serbia under Boris Tadić provides a hopeful sign of optimism – his attendance at this weekend’s Srebrenica commemoration was welcome, as was the apology finally pushed through the Serbian parliament earlier this year.

Nevertheless, memories remain fresh; and wounds remain raw. They will heal – and tracking down and handing over Mladić, whose units were responsible for the massacres, to be tried in the Hague alongside Karađić will help. Tadić needs to follow through on his weekend words here.

In the meantime, and in this other theatre of that war, Kosovo’s independence must be allowed to stand. While upholding the general principle of the importance of protecting the integrity of national borders, a state that attacks its own people, conducting campaigns of terror amongst and making refugees of its citizens, has conceded the right to have those borders respected. Modern Serbia needs to recognise that its past approach is ultimately why Kosovo has gone: and both Kosovo and Serbia need to be given support for EU accession: preserving peace amongst states previously at war is simultaneously the Union’s raison d’être and its continuing most important role. Greater leadership is needed here, too – despite the Union’s other evident concerns, building peace and relationships is what it exists for and it needs urgently to expand its role in and for Serbia and Kosovo.