Kosovo’s split from Serbia deemed legal
international court’s ruling isn’t binding but sets precedent
LONDON — Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 didn’t violate international law, the United Nations’ highest court declared Thursday in a closely watched case that could have significant repercussions for secessionist movements around the world.
The opinion by the International Court of Justice, while not binding, is likely to give a considerable boost to the tiny Balkan country’s quest for full statehood. The decision also represents a blow to Serbia, which considers Kosovo part of its territory. At present, 69 nations, including the U.S., recognize Kosovo as a separate country, but a number of major powers, such as Russia and China, do not.
“Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future,” U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
The court, based in The Hague, Netherlands, decided that Kosovo “did not violate general international law” in declaring itself independent in February 2008, because there are no prohibitions against such declarations.
“I expect Serbia to turn and come to us, to talk with us on so many issues of mutual in- terest, of mutual importance,” Kosovo’s foreign minister, Skender Hyseni told Reuters. “But such talks can only take place as talks between sovereign states.”
But Serbian President Boris Tadic rejected the ruling, telling reporters in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, that his country “would never recognize the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo.”
In Kosovo’s ethnically divided northern city of Mitrovica, ethnic Serb Tihomir Markovic called the ruling shameful. “After this, it will be hard for us, the Serbs in Kosovo,” he said.
Belgrade maintains that the region has been a fundamental component of Serbia for hun- dreds of years and that the territory rightfully remains a Serbian province.
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. U.S. and NATO warplanes intervened on the Kosovars’ behalf, mounting an aerial bombing campaign that lasted 78 days. The area was then placed under U.N. administration. NATO peacekeepers continue to monitor the cease-fire.
Since then, Kosovo has increasingly functioned as more or less a separate country, with Pristina as its capital.
But its declaration of independence divided international opinion. The U.S. and most of the European Union supported it, with the notable exception of Spain, which has battled its own separatist groups, such as Basque rebels. Russia and China, which are also confronted with secessionist movements in territories such as Chechnya and Tibet, opposed Kosovo’s independence as well.
The world court’s decision “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.”
Before the International Court of Justice’s decision on the legality of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in 2008, a Serb Orthodox priest at a monastery in Gracanica, Kosovo, led prayers for a fair ruling.