World court to issue nonbinding opinion on legality of Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration

By Mike Corder, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

World court to rule on Kosovo independence

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The United Nations’ highest court was issuing an advisory opinion Thursday on whether Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia was legal, a ruling that could set a precedent for separatist regions around the world.

The International Court of Justice advice is nonbinding, but it is expected to renew pressure for a resumption of talks between Belgrade and Pristina about Kosovo’s future status.

However, at a court hearing last December, Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni said it would be “inconceivable” to reopen negotiations and warned that the court’s opinion “could even spark new conflict in the region.”

Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians decided to split from Serbia after almost two years of internationally monitored talks failed with Serbia.

Kosovo has been recognized as an independent state by 69 countries, including the United States and most European Union nations. But a diplomatic campaign by Serbia has prevented more countries from recognizing Kosovo, which Serbs consider the cradle of their national identity.

A U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity before the announcement, said that if the court says the declaration was legal, the main significance will likely be that more countries will recognize Kosovo’s independence — and once the number tops 100, its full statehood can be established.

Serbian Orthodox Church elders ordered all their churches in Serbia and Kosovo to toll their bells Thursday at 5 p.m. for five minutes — when the decision is expected to be announced — as a prayer for a favorable ruling by the court.

Serbian President Boris Tadic said Wednesday he expects that the court will rule that Kosovo Albanians had no legal right to secede.

“If the International Court of Justice sets a new principle, it would trigger a process that would create several new countries and destabilize numerous regions in the world,” he added.

Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said he did not expect “winners or losers” to emerge from the court’s opinion.

“I expect this to be a correct decision, according to the will of Kosovo’s citizens. Kosovo will respect the advisory opinion,” Thaci told The Associated Press by phone.

He said he expected the decision to “open up a new perspective for integration into NATO and the EU and a new set of relations and cooperation between Kosovo and Serbia as two partner countries.”

International law expert Bibi van Ginkel of the Clingendael think tank in The Hague said the judges have to weigh the right of a sovereign state to territorial integrity against the right of a people to self-determination.

“Both are fundamental rights in international law,” Van Ginkel said.

NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 to end a brutal crackdown by Serb forces against Kosovo’s separatist ethnic Albanians. About 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed and close to 1 million forced from their homes in the fighting. Hundreds of Serbs were also killed in retaliatory attacks by Kosovo separatists.

Countries with separatist regions, such as Spain and China, weighed into the debate last year, saying they oppose Kosovo independence.

China’s representative at the hearings, Xue Hanqin, told judges that Kosovo is and should remain an integral part of Serbia.

“Given the vital importance of territory, no state would accept that any of its component parts may secede from it without its consent,” Xue said.

U.S. State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh disagreed, saying that the United States, “a nation born of a declaration of independence more than two centuries ago,” urged the court to leave Kosovo alone.

“Serbia now seeks an opinion by this court that would turn back time … (and) undermine the progress and stability that Kosovo’s Declaration has brought to the region,” Koh said.

Fred Cocozzelli, a politics expert at St. John’s University in New York who has written on post-conflict reconstruction, said he expected the court to try to avoid setting a precedent unless it is to underscore how separatists in Kosovo involved the international community to manage its bid for secession.

“So in other cases, it would then be upon the separatist forces to follow that same pattern of allowing for international intervention, of not demanding sovereignty but agreeing to cooperate with the U.N. and other institutions,” he said.

Associated Press Writer Nebi Qena in Pristina, Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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