Update No: 158 -
ICJ rules on Kosovar
independence; it is legal
The International Court of Justice (ICJ)
in The Hague has ruled that Kosovo's
independence, which it unilaterally
declared in February 2008, is lawful. This
decision, which is non-binding, was
delivered on July 22.
A tiny patch of the Balkans with a
population of two million, Kosovo declared
independence in February 2008 after years
of fruitless talks with Serbia about its
desire to break away. NATO Belgrade lost
control over Kosovo in 1999 after a bitter
two-year war with the ethnic Albanians who
make up the vast majority of Kosovo's
population. Belgrade lost control over
Kosovo in 1999 after a bitter two-year war
with the ethnic Albanians who make up the
vast majority of Kosovo's population.
Belgrade lost control over Kosovo in 1999
after a bitter two-year war with the
ethnic Albanians who make up the vast
majority of Kosovo's population.
The area was then placed under U.N.
administration. NATO peacekeeping troops
continue to monitor the cease-fire. Kosovo
has increasingly functioned as a separate
state, with Pristina as its capital.
Issuing the non-binding advisory opinion,
International Court of Justice President
Hisashi Owada said international law
contains "no ... prohibition of
declarations of independence," and
therefore Kosovo's declaration "did not
violate general international law."
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed
the ruling as “a historic victory." In
Pristina, ethnic Albanians honked their
horns and waved Kosovo and U.S. flags to
celebrate the ruling.
Serbia, which does not recognize Kosovo as
a state and regards it as a Serbian
province, had pushed for the ICJ to get
involved and in October 2008 the United
Nations agreed to ask the court for an
Although non-binding, Serbia hoped the
ruling would resurrect internationally-
mediated talks on the status of Kosovo.
Years of talks on the status of Kosovo -
based on UN resolution 1244 from 1999 -
ended without an agreement.
"We do expect that the court is not going
to endorse the legality of the unilateral
act of secession because if they do so,
then no border anywhere in the world,
anywhere where a secessionist ambition is
harboured, will ever be safe," Serbia's
foreign minister Vuk Jeremic told Deutsche
This expectation has been confounded; the
ICJ has endorsed the legality of Kosovo's
secession. This doubtless will have
implications across the board; the Serbian
FM is quite right.
The Serbian Prime Minister Boris Tadic
naturally rejected the court's decision,
saying that his country "would never
recognize the unilaterally proclaimed
independence of Kosovo."
Division of world opinion on the matter
Its declaration of independence divided
international opinion, however. The U.S.
and most of the European Union supported
it, with the notable exception of Spain,
which has battled its own separatist
groups. Russia and China, which are also
confronted with secessionist movements in
places such as Chechnya and Tibet, opposed
Kosovo's independence as well.
In all, 69 countries have recognized
Kosovo's independence. The court's
non-binding decision could spur further
recognition of Kosovo.
The ruling also "could radically change
the way we treat separatist groups in
future," said James Ker-Lindsay, an
analyst at the London School of Economics.
"The floodgates could be opened for a
whole raft of new states to emerge. No one
wants to see this happen."
Kosovo is home mainly to ethnic Albanians,
with a small Serb minority. After the
Kosovo War, in which Belgrade forcefully
suppressed an ethnic Albanian insurgency,
ethnic Serbs fled Kosovo and many still
live in refugee camps in Serbia. Like the
Serbian government, they are fiercely
opposed to an independent Kosovo.
"It's very hard to think about it. Still
now I can't believe that I'm not living in
my own country anymore," Snezana
Darmanovic, who lives in one of the camps
in Pancevo just outside Belgrade, told
"I feel like I'm a guest here. I still see
Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Our roots and
our hearts are there," she says.
Kosovo confident of ICJ ruling
Kosovo, meanwhile, was all along confident
that the court would rule that
independence complies with international
law, making further talks about its status
"We will enter a new phase after this
ruling, a phase of consolidation of our
state," said Kosovo's Prime Minister Thaci.
"In that next phase, we will push for the
integration of Kosovo into NATO, the EU
and the UN," he added.
Into the EU by 2015?
On 22 December 2009 Serbia itself formally
submitted its application to join the EU.
But Serbia is unlikely to join the EU
until at least 2015.
Serbia's co-operation with the
international war crimes tribunal in The
Hague has been rewarded in recent months,
despite Belgrade's failure to arrest the
former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko
Mladic. Serbia's arrest of former Bosnian
Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in July 2008,
after nearly 13 years on the run, drew EU
praise for the pro-Western government in
On 7 December the EU unfroze an interim
trade deal, which had been blocked for 18
months. The Dutch government had been
demanding that Gen Mladic first be handed
over to the tribunal.
And since 19 December citizens of Serbia
and two other former Yugoslav republics -
Macedonia and Montenegro - have enjoyed
visa-free travel to the Schengen area,
which includes most of the EU. The visa
waiver applies to those who hold biometric
Serbia signed a Stabilisation and
Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in
April 2008, but only in June 2010 did EU
foreign ministers agree to put it into
The Kosovar stumbling block
Belgrade's ties with the EU have been
strained by Kosovo's declaration of
independence - a declaration, as we have
seen, recognised by most EU members and
now the ICJ.
The EU wants to see better Serbian
co-operation with its police and justice
mission in Kosovo, called Eulex. Many
Kosovo Serbs are reluctant to recognise
the authority of Eulex.