US Backs Kosovan Independence Regardless Of UN Ruling

Peter Beaumont
Thursday 22 July 2010 13.15 BST

UN court set to rule on legality of Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral
declaration of independence from Serbia

Kosovans celebrate after declaring independence in 2008. Photograph:
Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

The US has pledged to back Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration
of independence regardless of a UN court verdict on its legality
due today.

The vice-president, Joe Biden, who met Kosovo’s prime minister in
Washington yesterday, “reaffirmed the United States’ full support
for an independent, democratic, whole and multi-ethnic Kosovo whose
future lies firmly within European and Euro-Atlantic institutions”,
according to a White House statement.

The judgment from the international court of justice (ICJ) in The
Hague – to be issued at 2pm – is not legally binding, but is likely
to have profound consequences for Kosovo and other de facto states
and territories that might secede in the future.

Formerly the southernmost province of Serbia, Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian
majority rebelled against rule from Belgrade in 1998 after years
of political repression, triggering an intervention by Nato in the
conflict that followed.

Following the failure of a negotiated settlement between Belgrade
and Pristina after the conflict, Kosovo unilaterally declared itself
independent in February 2008. It was this declaration that was referred
to the ICJ after Serbia complained to the UN general assembly.

The judges on the panel – split almost evenly between those from
countries that have recognised Kosovo and those that have not –
have a history of careful and conservative judgments.

Speaking yesterday, the Serbian foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic,
warned that even in the event of a ruling against it, Belgrade was
not ready to give up its claim to Kosovo. “Serbia will not change its
position regarding Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence
and necessity of a compromise. Our fight for such a solution will
probably be long and difficult, but we will not give up.”

Jeremic, who will be in The Hague for the ruling, had said earlier
that he expected a decision to vindicate Serbia, which would lead to
new negotiations on both sides.

But Kosovo’s deputy prime minister, Rame Manaj, insisted: “The
declaration of independence is legal and legitimate because it
expresses the will of Kosovo’s people.”

The court has three options: rule the declaration illegal, rule it
legal, or offer an undecided or a balanced view.

Key considerations that the court examined, arising out of dozens of
submissions by UN member states as well as by Kosovo’s own leadership,
have focused on issues of sovereignty, the slim volume of precedent
in international law, and how formerly large states such as the USSR
broke up along administrative borders.

While 69 countries have recognised Kosovo’s declaration, it remains
far short of the two-thirds of the general assembly required for
membership of the UN.

A ruling in Kosovo’s favour could bring that closer, with some
countries expected to recognise Kosovo should a ruling go its way.

None of the scenarios, however, is expected to have an immediate
impact on the situation on the ground, where a small area with a
Serb majority has itself split away around the north of the town of
Mitrovica, which has about 100,000 residents.

The resulting deadlock has sometimes erupted into violence, despite
intense international efforts, with Serbs and Kosovans running their
own areas.

One way out of the impasse, according to one European diplomat who
has been closely monitoring the issue, would be if both sides could be
persuaded to engage in “technical talks” after the ruling – as opposed
to “negotiations” – to discuss a “special status” for Mitrovica North
and its surrounding Serb enclave. This idea was floated by western
diplomats earlier this month.

Under this proposal Belgrade would be the guarantor of the Serb
enclave’s autonomy, rather than Belgrade and Pristina together,
giving it a status similar to South Tyrol in Italy.

For Serbia, the ruling could complicate the balance of its politics. A
ruling in its favour could lead to an entrenchment of its claims on
Kosovo, creating problems for its ambitions for EU membership. A
judgment against it is unlikely to change its support for Serbs
around Mitrovica.

A judgment that the declaration of independence was legal would also
have an impact on the wider international stage, bolstering demands for
recognition by territories as diverse as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland,
Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

Among those expecting a ruling largely in Serbia’s favour is Stefan
Wolff, professor of international security at Birmingham University.

“My personal view is that the court will say it is not in accordance
with international law. It is likely to take a very narrow view of
the arguments.”

Wolff believes a judgment in favour of Kosovo would make it
more difficult for the UN to manage conflicts, especially in the
transitional management of disputed territories.

James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans expert at the London School of Economics,
is more emphatic: “The legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration
of independence is the most important case ever to come before the
international court of justice.

“The opinion of the court could radically change the way we treat
separatist groups in future. If it finds in favour of Kosovo, the
floodgates could be opened for a whole raft of new states to emerge.

No one wants to see this happen.”


Kosovo – or Kosova to ethnic Albanians – comes from the word
“blackbird”, relating to Kosova Polje, “the field of blackbirds”,
the battlefield where Prince Lazar was defeated by the Ottoman army in
1389. Rising nationalist tensions in the 20th century came to a head
in the 1980s. Slobodan Milosevic reduced Kosovo’s special status in
Serbia, triggering the rise of a vocal separatist movement. By 1998
violence between Serb paramilitary police and the Kosovo Liberation
Army was widespread. Nato’s intervention in 1999 saw Belgrade bombed
back to the negotiating table, ending its effective control over all
but a fraction of Kosovo. Kosovo declared itself independent in 2008.

Despite that it has struggled to persuade enough countries to recognise
it to join the United Nations.

From: A. Papazian

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