Listen to article

On July 22, the International Court of Justice ruled that Kosovo, a province of Serbia, was right to have unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. In this analysis, TUNJI AJIBADE, a Consultant Writer, examines the implication of this ruling on sovereignty of states and for separatist movements across the world.

A two-year war between Serbia and ethnic Kosovo Albanians was stopped by a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999. Serbia thereafter lost control of Kosovo when a U.N. administration as well as a NATO-monitored ceasefire was put in place. Ethnic-Albanian dominated Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia in 2008. Now 69 nations, including the United States and a majority of European Union nations, out of the 192 countries in the United Nations General Assembly have recognized Kosovo. This recognition or lack of it by majority of the U.N member nations, according to analysts, will have far reaching consequences on nation’s sovereignty as previously known.

Former Yugoslavia was a problem in the early days after the cold war ended; much of the Balkans, in Southern Europe, for various reasons have historically been hot spots. The assassination that sparked off the First World War took place there, for instance. The component units of defunct communist Yugoslavia, held together by maximum rulers during the cold war, went their different ways one after the other after series of dreadful wars. The latest of them to go is Kosovo which Serbia insists belongs to it. Now the International Court of Justice at The Hague has declared that there was nothing illegal in Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. Naturally, this did not go down well with Serbia, and it didn’t many of the nations that have groups with separatist tendencies, many of which are part of the larger U.N nations yet to recognize this latest nation to emerge from an old block.

Until this landmark ruling happened, there were three grounds on which a new country could be established: a vote of the United Nations (as in the case of Israel in 1947–48), by mutual agreement (as in the divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992 or between Serbia and Montenegro in 2006), or through decolonization as it is the case in Africa. When Rhodesia and Northern Cyprus unilaterally declared their "independence", a step that was not within recognized pattern, the UN Security Council said it was illegal. But by its latest ruling, observers say the ICJ has established a new standard: when it comes to secession. The court gave its reasons.

"The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declaration of independence," president of the ICJ, Judge Hisashi Owada, said in his majority ruling. "Accordingly it concludes that the declaration of independence of the 17th of February 2008 did not violate general international law." That was good news in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, where the court's decision led to celebrations, and people moved about with flags both of their new country and that of Britain as well as the U.S. with shouts of "USA, USA!" Why people hailed these two countries under the present circumstance is understandable. Both had supported independence for Kosovo from the onset, and U.S Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has since the court ruling counseled everyone (nations) to move beyond the issue of Kosovo's status and seek cooperation. Kosovo’s Foreign Affairs 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. But such talks can only take place as talks between sovereign states," he added.

These, however, are empty words as far as the Serbians are concerned, and their president, Boris Tadic, vowed that Kosovo remained part of Serbia, saying, "Serbia will never recognize the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo." Aside from the two sides directly involved, words from Russia, Serbia's ally, concerning the ICJ ruling, contrasted sharply with that of the United States. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has sharply criticized the ruling, insisting that the court's decision to approve Kosovo’s independence was without a legal basis for the simple reason that the court only referred to the declaration of independence and did not address the legality of the consequences such as statehood or recognition by other nations. The fact cannot be missed that the same cold war reasons which have made Yugoslavia an erupted keg of gunpowder has again come to play in whether nations accept or reject Kosovo. Yet, this disagreement between the two ex-cold warriors has some other connotations. One of them is the wider implication of the ICJ ruling on the activities of separatist movements.

Apparently, the U.S, Britain and most of the EU member states have less of this to worry about compared to some other nations in Asia, Africa and South America. On the other hand, Russia needs to worry. It has dozens of separatist groups within her border and outside it. Georgia (one of former Soviet Union’s component units) has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the ICJ since 2008. Its claim: Russia entered South Ossetia and Abkhazia and carried out ethnic cleansing. As it is, the president of the Russian-backed breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia has said "the decision of the International Court once more confirms the right of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to self-rule." And then, in the Balkans, more separatist sentiments in the Serb half of Bosnia, another former Yugoslav republic, the ruling may have become a weapon to bring their dream for separate states into reality. And from China, India to Iraq, regions that want autonomy have been further empowered. In Nigeria, South East of the country has movements that won’t mind taking the federal government on more so as the basis of existence, federalism, has been largely non-existing.

Critics have said that the ICJ ruling has voided sovereignty or territorial integrity, as it was known for decades. Yet, as observers pointed out, the court did not, in its ruling, make Kosovo a state. It only said, Kosovo did not err by unilaterally declaring itself independent. Cleverly however, the court has left the task of conferring independence on Kosovo to U.N. members. By implication, that part of the U.N Charter requiring 2/3 of its 192 member nations to voluntarily recognize a new nation, has to come into operation; and in this circumstance, it is what will make Kosovo’s claim to independence valid.

It is not as if Kosovo’s supporters, especially the U.S. did not recognize the potentials of the ruling on nations that face rebellion. The U.S., in fact, has spoken in a way to indicate that Kosovo is a ‘special case.’ For Serbia’s violent repression of Kosovo’s majority ethnic Albanians under a former Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, had made the Americans and their European allies conclude that Serbia has lost the right to rule that territory. But that is neither here nor there, because groups bent on going the way of Kosovo too may cite violent repressions by their governments, as a reason to break away.

All in all, and not no matter how special this case is, analysts agree that the ICJ has created a precedent that groups will be want to put to the test, thereby sending the judges at the Hague, back to their law books. For as the Serbian president, in recognition of this, put it, "If the I.C.J. opinion establishes a new principle, an entire process of creating new states would open throughout the world, something that would destabilize many regions of the world"

Ajibade lives in Abuja.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by