As Separatists Welcome Int’l Court Kosovo Opinion, US Insists it’s Not Applicable Elsewhere

By Patrick Goodenough | July 23, 2010 | 12:08 AM EDT

ICJ President Judge Hisashi Owada, centre, flanked by Judge Peter Tomka, left, and Judge Awn Shawkat Al-Khasawneh, right, at the court in The Hague on Thursday, July 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Evert-Jan Daniels)

( – The International Court of Justice’s long-awaited opinion on Kosovo Thursday may be non-binding and Kosovo-specific, but it resonated around the world, buoying secessionist movements and prompting anxiety in countries grappling with separatism.

Predicting a rush of additional recognitions by foreign governments, Kosovo’s leaders welcomed the advisory opinion by tribunal in The Hague, which in a 10-4 decision said the Serbian province’s unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) did not violate international law.

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said Kosovo’s “vision” was for “quick integration” into the United Nations, European Union and NATO.

Serbia was to hold an extraordinary government session in Belgrade Friday to analyze the opinion. Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said the country would prepare for a debate on the matter at the U.N. General Assembly in September, and Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told reporters it was there that the issue would be settled politically.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, nine years after NATO went to war to end Serb aggression against the province’s ethnic Albanian Muslim majority.

Belgrade says Kosovo remains a sovereign part of Serbia, and eight months after the UDI it won a General Assembly vote referring the legality of the move to the ICJ. The number of countries in favor only narrowly exceeded those abstaining but only six, including the U.S., voted against the initiative.

The Peace Palace, seat of the the International Court of Justice in The Hague (AP Photo/Evert-Jan Daniels)

As of Friday, Kosovo has been recognized by 69 of the 192 U.N. member-states – 19 more than recognized it when the General Assembly referred the case to the ICJ in October 2008. The most recent additions, Somalia and Djibouti, came in May.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday that “Kosovo is an independent state and its territory is inviolable,” and called on states that had not yet done so to recognize it.

The dispute has long divided the United States and Russia, which have respectively championed Kosovo’s and Serbia’s cause.

It has also split several international blocs. Most European Union member-states recognize Kosovo’s independence, but five others – Spain, Cyprus, Slovakia, Greece and Romania – do not.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is even more deeply divided. OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu would like to see an independent Kosovo become the Islamic bloc’s 57th sovereign member but only 15 OIC countries, among them Jordan, Turkey, Albania and Saudi Arabia, now recognize it.

Others, including Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia and Azerbaijan, have resisted calls to do so, in part because of a reluctance to upset Russia, Serbia’s leading ally.

Not coincidentally, many of the countries most uneasy about Kosovo’s UDI are themselves dealing with unresolved separatist conflicts or potential conflicts.

Some countries have warned that if Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is legitimized it could fuel separatist movements in other parts of the world, such as China’s western Xinjiang or East Turkestan region, home to Muslim Uighurs. (AP Photo)

They include Russia (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia), China (Tibet, Xinjiang), Spain (Basque region, Catalonia), Cyprus (Northern Cyprus), Azerbaijan (Nagorno-Karabakh), Indonesia (Aceh, Papua) and Georgia (South Ossetia, Abhkazia).

Russia, which shares ethnic and religious links to Serbia and is its biggest trading partner, has led international opposition to the UDI.

“Our position on the non-recognition of the independence of Kosovo remains unchanged,” the foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday.

Russia has warned of the implications for secessionist struggles elsewhere, and a month after the UDI Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that the move had helped to trigger violent unrest in Tibet.

At the same time, Moscow cites Kosovo when defending its own backing for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

(Many observers saw Russia’s invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008 in support of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as its response to NATO’s armed intervention in Kosovo, which it had strongly opposed.)

Russia has cited the Kosovo situation in justifying independence calls for Georgia’s two breakaway republics. Here President Dimity Medvedev speaks with South Ossetia’s separatist leader Eduard Kokoity during a visit to a Russian military base there on July 13, 2009. (AP Photo/ RIA Novosti)

‘Unique to Kosovo’

A senior Russian lawmaker warned Thursday that the ICJ opinion would open a “Pandora’s box,” telling the Interfax news agency he expected “a lot of dangerous trends emerging globally.”

Supporters of Kosovo’s independence, including the Obama and Bush administrations, maintain that it is a “special case” that sets no precedent.

“This was a set of facts unique to Kosovo,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley  said Thursday. “The court was applying these facts. We don’t think it’s applicable to any other situation.”

State Department legal advisor Harold Koh at a briefing later noted that the ICJ judges had not touched on rights of self-determination or succession.

“They didn’t say all declarations of independence are in accordance with international laws, but they said that Kosovo’s declaration of independence, on its particular set of facts, is in accordance with international law.”

Still, Basque and Abkhazia representatives were among those welcoming the ICJ opinion.

“I think that the main consequence is that Spain cannot keep saying that the international rules don’t allow for a split of the country for a new Basque independent country into the European Union,” the BBC quoted Basque Nationalist Party lawmaker Aitor Estaban as saying.

“The international court's decision once again reaffirmed Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s rights to self-determination,” Abkhazia’s President Sergei Bagapsh said in a statement.

“Abkhazia and South Ossetia, meantime, have far more historical and legal grounds for independence than Kosovo does,” Bagapsh added, predicting the ICJ opinion would encourage more countries to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

“I believe that the issue of declaration of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be examined by the U.N. as well, and it may then be possible to prove these declarations of independence do not contradict the norms of international law,” said South Ossetia’s deputy foreign minister, Tskhovrebov Kazbulat.

“I hope the Western countries will sooner or later acknowledge the existing reality when it comes to South Ossetia’s independence – that will [lead] to more extended recognition of our statehood,” he told Voice of Russia radio.

The only countries which have followed Russia’s lead in recognizing the two breakaway Georgian regions as “independent” to date are Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific island nation of Nauru.

The government of Cyprus said it was closely studying the ICJ opinion, but noted that the decision had drawn a distinction between Kosovo and the situation of Cyprus. The Mediterranean island nation has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied the north.

During the ICJ proceedings some countries’ representatives brought up the fact that the U.N. Security Council had in the past condemned specific declarations of independence, notably those of Northern Cyprus in 1983 and Rhodesia in 1965.

In their opinion, the judges said however that in those cases the illegality “stemmed not from the unilateral character of these declarations as such, but from the fact that they were, or would have been, connected with the unlawful use of force or other egregious violations of norms of general international law.”

“In the context of Kosovo, the Security Council has never taken this position.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow