World court: Kosovo independence declaration is legal

THE HAGUE, (Reuters) – Kosovo’s unilateral secession  from Serbia in 2008 did not violate international law, the World  Court said yesterday in a decision with implications for  separatist movements everywhere. The non-binding, but clear-cut ruling by the International  Court of Justice is a major blow to Serbia and will complicate  efforts to draw the former pariah ex-Yugoslav republic into the  European Union.

It is likely to lead to more states following the United  States, Britain and 67 other countries in recognising  ethnic-Albanian dominated Kosovo, which broke away after NATO  intervened to end a brutal crackdown on separatism by Belgrade.

It may also embolden breakaway regions in countries ranging  from India and Iraq to Serbia’s war-torn neighbour and fellow  former Yugoslav republic Bosnia to seek more autonomy.

“The court considers that general international law contains  no applicable prohibition of declaration of independence,” Judge  Hisashi Owada, president of the ICJ, said in the clear majority  ruling delivered in a cavernous hall at the Hague-based ICJ.

“Accordingly it concludes that the declaration of  independence of the 17th of February 2008 did not violate  general international law.”

Serbian President Boris Tadic insisted Kosovo remained part  of Serbia, a statement which, alongside the unequivocal nature  of the ruling, threw confusion over Serbia’s path towards EU  membership, seen in the West as a way to stabilise the Balkans.

“Serbia will never recognise the unilaterally proclaimed  independence of Kosovo,” Tadic said.

News of the court’s decision prompted celebrations in the  Kosovo capital Pristina, where people drove through the streets  waving Kosovo, U.S. and British flags and shouting “USA, USA!”.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said everyone should  move beyond the issue of Kosovo’s status and seek cooperation.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni said the ruling would  compel Serbia to deal with it as a sovereign state. “I expect Serbia to turn and come to us, to talk with us on  so many issues of mutual interest, of mutual importance,” Hyseni  told Reuters. “But such talks can only take place as talks  between sovereign states.”

In the flashpoint northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica,  Albanians fired bullets in the air and let off firecrackers  while Serbs gathered in their part of town and international  forces blocked bridges across the river dividing the two sides. In Serbia the Orthodox Church, which has deep roots in  Kosovo, rang church bells and led prayers.

Serbia’s dinar currency hit all-time lows, forcing the  central bank to intervene for the second day in a row.

CLEAR RULING,
CLEAR OPPOSING SIDES

Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 when a 78-day NATO  bombing campaign ended a two-year war between Serbia and ethnic  Kosovo Albanians, and put in place a U.N. administration and a  NATO-monitored ceasefire.

The reaction of Serbia’s ally Russia to the ruling  contrasted sharply with that of the United States, a reminder of  Cold War tensions and of the risk of a continued impasse in the  region, one of the poorest corners of Europe.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the court’s decision did not  provide a legal basis for Kosovo’s independence since it only  referred to the declaration of independence and did not address  the legality of consequences such as statehood or recognition.

Analysts said the ruling left little room for doubt.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting that. It is a clear,  strong and unambiguous statement in favor of Kosovo’s  independence,” said Marko Prelec of think tank the International  Crisis Group.    “It will strengthen Kosovo’s position vis a vis Serbia in  the international scenes and weaken Serbia’s position. There  will be many more recognitions now.”

The ruling was being watched closely by other nations  grappling with calls for secession from within their borders. “This is bad news to a number of governments dealing with  separatist movements,” said Edwin Bakker, researcher at the  Clingendael Institute of International Relations. “This ruling  brings Kosovo’s entry in the U.N. much closer.”

Georgia filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Russia at the same  court, saying that Russia’s incursion into South Ossetia and  Abkhazia amounted to ethnic cleansing. Spain, which has its own  regions seeking greater autonomy, has said it will not recognise  an independent Kosovo. “The decision of the International Court once more confirms  the right of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to self-rule,” said  Sergei Bagapsh, president of the Russian-backed breakaway  Georgian region of Abkhazia.

In the Balkans, the ruling could fortify separatist  sentiments in the Serb half of Bosnia, another former Yugoslav  republic which remains divided along ethnic lines.

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