Kosovo breakaway from Serbia was legal, world court rules

Judgment leaves Belgrade battling to stop more countries recognising tiny ethnic Albanian state

Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia was legal under international law, the world court said today in a groundbreaking ruling with implications for separatist movements around the world and for Belgrade's stalled EU membership talks.

The ruling – taken up by the international court of justice after a complaint from Serbia – is likely to lead more countries to recognise Kosovo's independence. The tiny state is backed by 69 countries but needs 100 to join the UN.

Announcing the decision, court president Hisashi Owada said international law contains no "prohibition on declarations of independence. Accordingly [the court] concludes that the declaration of independence on 17 February 2008 did not violate general international law." Ten of the 14 judges on the panel backed Kosovo, while four voted in Serbia's favour.

The court said the declaration was not in violation of UN resolution 1244, which Belgrade interprets as a guarantee of Serbia's territorial integrity, as the resolution contained no provisions to prevent a unilateral declaration.

Kosovo split from Serbia in 2008 after a bloody war in 1998-99 and nearly a decade of international administration.

Triggered by a brutal crackdown by Serb forces against Kosovan separatists, the war saw about 10,000 ethnic Albanians die before ending with a 78-day Nato bombing campaign. Hundreds of Serbs were killed in retaliatory attacks.

Today Kosovo, itself divided, with a Serb enclave in the north around the town of Mitrovica, said Serbia should now deal with it as a sovereign state. "This is a great day for Kosovo, and my message to the government of Serbia is 'come and talk to us,'" the foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said outside court.

Serbia said it would lobby hard to prevent a wave of diplomatic recognitions for Kosovo, while pushing for a new UN resolution. President Boris Tadic said his country would never recognise Kosovan independence, a stance supported by Serbia's strongest ally on the issue, Russia, which said the ruling gave no legal basis for secession.

In Belgrade, the ultranationalist Radical party said the court had "gravely violated" international law and demanded the UN security council end the EU peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.

Before the judgment, US vice-president Joe Biden reiterated American backing for Kosovo's independence at a meeting with visiting prime minister Hashim Thaci. Biden today called Tadic to affirm Washington's support for a democratic, multi-ethnic Kosovo. "The ruling strongly asserts that Kosovo's declaration of independence is legal, a judgment we support," said state department spokesman PJ Crowley. "Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future."

Key considerations for the court – arising from submissions by UN members and Kosovo's leadership – included issues of sovereignty, the slim volume of precedent in international law, and how former large states such as the Soviet Union broke up along administrative borders.

The court ruled on the narrowest of remits – whether there was anything in law to rule secession illegal. In doing so, it appeared to signal that issues of sovereignty should be considered to be as much about politics as international law.

Serbia has continued to demand Kosovo be returned, arguing that the declaration of independence secession was a "flagrant violation" of its territorial integrity.

The ruling is expected to bolster demands for recognition by territories as diverse as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

The ruling is not expected to have an immediate impact in Mitrovica, where the Serb majority has broken away and deadlock sometimes erupts into violence. The ruling will reinforce Kosovan resistance to any kind of renegotiation, particularly over the status of Serb majority areas in the north.

Hyseni said before the ruling that reopening negotiations was inconceivable.

The ruling is likely to cause schisms in Serbian politics, not least concerning nationalist sentiment over Kosovo, which had been papered over while the court was considering the complaint.


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Kosovo holds its breath as international court prepares to rule on independence

Serbia not ready to give up its claim to former province ahead of ruling from ICJ on territory's unilateral declaration in 2008

Peter Beaumont

22, Jul, 2010 @9:05 AM

Article image
Serbia drops UN challenge to Kosovo independence

Volte-face comes hours before general assembly due to debate Belgrade's demand seeking to invalidate Kosovo's secession

Ian Traynor in Brussels

08, Sep, 2010 @6:39 PM

Article image
Kosovo Albanian mass grave found under car park in Serbia
Belgrade confirms site near Kosovan border believed to contain some 250 victims of Slobodan Milosevic's reign

Julian Borger, diplomatic editor

10, May, 2010 @6:00 PM

Serbia appeals to security council as Kosovo prepares to go it alone

As Kosovan independence looms Serbia calls for emergency meeting of the UN security council

Julian Borger in Pristina

14, Feb, 2008 @12:11 AM

Article image
Kosovo's independence is legal, UN court rules

Decision in favour of Kosovo's independence could have far-reaching implications for other separatist movements

Peter Beaumont

22, Jul, 2010 @2:39 PM

Article image
Kosovo offers to bury differences with Serbia
Prime minister Hashim Thaçi, writing for Comment is free, responds to EU calls for talks with Belgrade neighbour

Ian Traynor in Brussels

02, Sep, 2010 @3:48 PM

Serbia asks UN for partitioning of Kosovo

Serbia formally proposes partitioning Kosovo along ethnic lines for the first time

Ian Traynor, Europe editor

25, Mar, 2008 @12:00 AM

Article image
War crimes court orders retrial of Kosovo leaders
Trial of former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj and KLA hierarchy was marred by witness intimidation, judge rules

Mark Tran

21, Jul, 2010 @10:52 AM

Article image
Serbia threatens to recall envoys from states backing independent Kosovo

Serbia signalled today it would withdraw ambassadors from countries that recognise an independent Kosovo but insisted it would retain diplomatic ties

Mark Tran and agencies

15, Feb, 2008 @4:29 PM

Serbian convoy enters Kosovo amid fears over partition of new state

Serb resistance to Kosovo escalates as border posts are torched and a convoy of several hundred enters the state

Peter Beaumont in Mitrovica and Julian Borger in Pristina

20, Feb, 2008 @12:44 AM