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Russia, U.S. Face Off In Court Over Kosovo's Independence

The International Court of Justice in The Hague is to issue a nonbinding decision on the legality of Kosovo's secession from Serbia.
PRAGUE/THE HAGUE -- The United States has urged a UN court not to raise doubts about Kosovo's statehood, arguing that Pristina's declaration of independence has brought stability to the Balkans and has offered people across the region a European future.

But Russia, a staunch ally of Serbia, told the same court today that recognizing Kosovo's statehood would send the wrong signal to militant separatists around the world.

Kosovo, formerly a province of Serbia, unilaterally declared independence on February 17, 2008, after long and difficult UN-brokered talks between Belgrade and ethnic-Albanian officials in Pristina broke down.

Since then, more than 60 countries, including 22 of the EU's 27 members, have recognized Kosovo's independence.

It was Serbia that requested the International Court of Justice to issue a nonbinding, advisory opinion on the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence. Belgrade has said it wants to convince other countries not to recognize Kosovo's statehood.

Of 29 countries that filed petitions to submit expert testimony to the court this month, 15 support Kosovo's independence while 14 support Belgrade's position.

Belgrade argued on the first day of the hearings, December 1, that Pristina's declaration of independence violated both international law and Serbia's territorial integrity.

U.S.: Not Against Law

But the head of the U.S. legal delegation, Harold Hongju Koh, told the court today that Kosovo's secession did not contravene international law and did not require an opinion from the tribunal.

Koh argued that general international law neither prohibits nor authorizes declarations of independence. He told the court's 15 judges at The Hague that it is up to individual nation-states to accept or reject declarations of independence.

Koh also noted that Belgrade officials have repeatedly said they will not recognize Kosovo at any cost, even if the UN court issues a ruling in favor of Pristina. He said the court has no obligation to issue advisory opinions in cases brought by states that have already suggested they may ignore the ruling.

He said the court also is not obliged to rule on cases brought by countries seeking to reopen political negotiations that "responsible UN officials have concluded are futile, or that seek to enlist the court to unravel delicate political arrangements that have brought stability to a troubled region."

"We therefore urge this court to leave Kosovo's declaration undisturbed either by refusing to issue an opinion, or by simply answering in the affirmative the question presented -- whether Kosovo's declaration of independence accords with international law," Koh told the court today.

Russia: Violated UN Resolution

Moscow's arguments in the case were presented today by Kirill Gevorgian, Russia's ambassador to the Netherlands. He said Kosovo's declaration of independence specifically violated UN Security Council Resolution 1244 -- the June 1999 resolution that placed Kosovo under an interim UN administration and authorized a NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo.

Gevorgian argued that, according to Resolution 1244, a final settlement on the status of Kosovo must be negotiated between Belgrade and Pristina and then endorsed in a vote by the UN Security Council. He said the failure of those negotiations does not mean there should be an alternative process for determining Kosovo's final status:

"The interim period during which Kosovo is to enjoy autonomy within Serbia, being governed by the international administration, is still ongoing," Gevorgian said.

"Resolution 1244 remains in force in its entirety. Therefore, no institution has a right to unilaterally declare the independence of Kosovo. Accordingly, the Russian Federation respectfully submits that the [unilateral declaration of independence] was not in accordance with Resolution 1244 of the Security Council."

Security Council Split

Today's testimony by the U.S. and Russian delegations comes during a week when all permanent members of the UN Security Council are presenting their views.

On December 7, Chinese Ambassador Xue Hanqin argued that the local administrative bodies established by the UN administration in Kosovo had violated the specific terms of UN Security Council resolution 1244 when they unilaterally declared independence:

Kosovo's declaration "is not in accordance with the Resolution 1244 and contravenes the principle of state sovereignty and territorial integrity," Xue said. "Therefore, there is no point in saying that international law is neutral in the present case."

The two other permanent members of the Security Council, France and Britain, have both recognized Kosovo's independence. France's delegates are scheduled to testify on December 9 while Britain's testimony will be on December 10.

There is no deadline for the court to issue a ruling. But the judges are expected to issue their nonbinding opinions sometime during 2010.