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UN Court Says Kosovo Independence Legal


Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic (second from the left) arrives at the International Court of Justice at the Peace Palace in The Hague as Kosovo's Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni (right) looks on July 22.

The highest United Nations court has affirmed Kosovo's 2008 unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, saying it did not violate international law.

The ruling has been welcomed by the United States, which called on other countries, including Serbia, to recognize Kosovo's independence. Serbia and Russia have rejected the ruling.

Serbian President Boris Tadic is now insisting that the UN court's decision be debated at the UN General Assembly in September. Tadic said he wants the UN to adopt a new resolution calling for the final status of Kosovo to be resolved through negotiations.

"Many countries will be under pressure to recognize Kosovo before discussion" at the UN General Assembly," Tadic said. "Serbia will put in all its efforts to make sure there are as few recognitions as possible, and in autumn, this year, in New York, to make adopting the resolution of the Republic of Serbia possible."

But Kosovo's ethnic Albanian prime minister, Hashim Thaci, has said Kosovo's independence is a de facto reality and that the issue is not negotiable.

Serbia filed the case with the International Court Of Justice (ICJ) in 2009, saying that the declaration by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership was a "flagrant violation" of Serbia's territorial integrity.

Legal experts say the July 22 ruling could have important implications for other regions with separatist movements. It could also lead to more countries recognizing Kosovo.

ICJ President Hisashi Owada said the declaration did not violate international law or the 1999 United Nations resolution that placed Kosovo under interim UN administration.

"The court has concluded above that the adoption of the declaration of independence of February 17, 2008, did not violate general international law, Security Council Resolution 1244, or the constitutional framework," Owada said in a live broadcast of the ruling.

"Consequently, the adoption of that declaration did not violate any applicable rule of international law."

Kosovar Prime Minister Thaci hailed the ruling as a "historic victory" and "the best possible answer for the entire world," while the foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said outside the ICJ in The Hague, "My message to the government of Serbia is 'Come and talk to us."'

On the streets of Pristina, Kosovars responded to the ruling with joy. In Serbia, however, the decision was largely met with anger and disappointment:

'National Birthplace'

Serbs consider Kosovo to be the birthplace of their national identity. But Belgrade lost control of the territory in 1999 when a NATO bombing campaign brought an end to a war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo.

UN Security Council Resolution 1244 set up a temporary UN administration for Kosovo. Although the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) still exists, it has had a minor role since 2008.

On February 17, 2008, Kosovo's newly elected ethnic Albanian lawmakers and president issued their unilateral declaration of independence -- a move contested by Belgrade as a violation of international law and of Serbia's territorial integrity.

Kosovo's independence has been recognized by 69 countries -- including the United States and many European Union member states. But a diplomatic campaign by Serbia -- supported by Russia and China -- led other countries to hold off recognition.

The ICJ heard arguments from nearly 30 countries since Serbia asked the court to rule on whether the declaration of independence was "in accordance with international law." China, Russia, and Spain -- which face separatist movements within their own territory -- argued against the legality of the move while the United States led those in support of the declaration.

James Ker-Lindsay, a professor at the London School of Economics, says the ruling is important despite the fact that it is nonbinding. "Although everyone says it is an advisory opinion, you can't just say that it doesn't matter," he says. "It has tremendous significance. This is a principle organ of the United Nations."

Other experts say they expect today's opinion to lead more countries -- in the European Union and elsewhere in the world -- to recognize Kosovo's independence.

U.S. Reaction

The United States issued a quick reaction to the ruling, praising the UN court for validating Kosovo's declaration of independence and asking European nations to "unite" behind it.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged all states, including Serbia, to recognize Kosovo's independence and work constructively in support of peace and stability in the Balkans.

"Serbia and Kosovo are both friends and partners of the United States," Clinton said in a statement. "Now is the time for them to put aside their differences and move forward."

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden also called Serbian President Tadic on July 22 prior to the ruling. According to a White House press release, Biden "affirmed the United States' full support for a democratic and multi-ethnic Kosovo, and he reiterated the United States' unwavering commitment to Kosovo's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The vice president also "urged the Serbian government to work constructively to resolve practical issues with Kosovo to improve the lives of the people of Kosovo, Serbia, and of the region" and "affirmed the strong and deep ties between the United States and Serbia."

Tadic and other top Serbian officials, however, were quick to reject the ruling.

Tadic told reporters in the Serbian capital that his country "will never recognize the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo." He called the ruling "a difficult decision for Serbia," but said Belgrade would continue to try for a UN resolution that would urge both sides to start a dialogue.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic also said Belgrade's position remains the same -- that the only future status of Kosovo that can be long-lasting, sustainable and peaceful is one that is achieved thru peaceful negotiations.

"Serbia will never under any circumstances recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of the so-called Republic of Kosovo," Jeremic said. "Our position is not going to change, and I am confident that the position of all the major players in the international community is not going to change either as a result of this very narrow, technical ruling on this matter."

Russia, one of Serbia's main allies, also rejected the ruling. In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, "Our position on the nonrecognition of the independence of Kosovo remains unchanged. We believe the resolution of the problem of Kosovo is possible only through negotiations between the interested parties."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for calm and warned against any "provocative" steps in the wake of the ruling.

EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton offered to broker dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, with the goal of opening up "progress on the path to Europe," adding: "The future of Serbia lies in the European Union. The future of Kosovo also lies in the European Union."

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha has hailed the UN court's backing of Kosovo's independence as a contribution to regional peace and stability.

Numerous European countries, including France, Britain, and Germany, have welcomed the decision, while countries dealing with separatist movements, such as Spain and Cyprus, have held back.

Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic said he feared the decision now puts all borders at risk because it encourages other secessionist movements in the Balkans and around the world.

"I believe that from now on there are going to be people in the world tempted to write declarations of independence that are, obviously, according to the court, in their narrow sense, OK with international law," he said. "But once again, the right to secession was not considered in the courtroom today."

Crowley said that the ruling was specific to Kosovo. "We certainly don’t think that it applies to other circumstances," he said.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report

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