UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The World Court’s opinion that Kosovo’s unilateral secession from Serbia was not illegal will send a chill blast through other countries that have restive minorities keen to follow Kosovo’s example.
In a 9-5 nonbinding ruling on Thursday on the 2008 secession, the Hague-based court said it considered “that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declaration of independence.”
Diplomats at the United Nations said the ruling underscored the clash between two cardinal principles dear to rank-and-file U.N. member states: self-determination, in this case for Kosovo’s majority Albanians, and territorial integrity, in this case, Serbia’s.
From the outset, this caused a major split among the 192 U.N. nations over whether to recognize Kosovo. Sixty-nine, including the United States and many of its allies, have so far done so but the rest have not, many waiting to see what the World Court said.
Some, including Serbia and its big-power ally Russia, rejected the independence declaration. Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed it to halt the killing of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Even the European Union was divided, with Britain, France, Germany and others recognizing Kosovo but others with minority problems such as Spain and Cyprus holding back.
“It’s not only the problem of Kosovo,” one senior U.N. envoy said of Thursday’s ruling. “It will be read in a lot of capitals on the basis not of the Kosovo case itself but of the general implications for each country.”
“It’s very difficult to guess what will be the reaction of the General Assembly,” he added.
It was the assembly that, at Serbia’s initiative, requested the court’s opinion. Diplomats have been expecting Serbia to put a motion before the assembly following the court ruling calling on Kosovo’s authorities to negotiate with Belgrade over the future of the former Serbian province.
Edwin Bakker of the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations said the court’s ruling was “bad news to a number of governments dealing with separatist movements.”
“They may regard the ruling as a serious threat to their assumption that territorial integrity should be untouchable,” he said, adding that the opinion would “strengthen separatists around the globe.”
Among countries that could be considered in a similar situation to Serbia, Bakker cited Myanmar, Iraq, India and possibly Somalia.
Milos Solaja, director of the Center for International relations in Banja Luka in Serbia’s Balkan neighbor Bosnia, said his country could also be affected. Bosnia is divided into a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation.
Abdi Samatar of the University of Minnesota called the court’s opinion “a tricky ruling that could open floodgates.” He added to the list of potentially concerned countries Ethiopia, Yemen, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola and even Tanzania.
“What the ruling justifies is the use of violence to create new political realities,” Samatar said.
Western countries say Kosovo is a one-off case because of Serbia’s repression in the 1990s, and does not justify secession by, for instance, the Russian-backed enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Predictably, however, Sergei Bagapsh, president of breakaway Abkhazia, said the ruling “once more confirms the right of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to self-rule.”
Because the World Court’s opinion was nonbinding, analysts saw it as having political rather than legal consequences.
“A ruling by the World Court is like a statement issued by the United Nations. It doesn’t have enforceability unless a consensus of world powers chooses to back it,” said Kamran Bokhari of global intelligence firm Stratfor.
Several analysts said the ruling would be followed by a rush of recognitions of Kosovo by so-far uncommitted countries and could lead to Kosovo’s admission to the United Nations.
But admission requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly — critically including all five permanent members of the Security Council, which are the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
That means Russia has the power to indefinitely keep Kosovo out of the world body — unless Moscow changes its view on the issue, or Serbia does.
First reactions from Russia and Serbia on Thursday to the ruling indicated that they remained as implacably hostile as ever to Kosovo independence.
Additional reporting by Adam Tanner and Reed Stevenson in The Hague, William Maclean in London and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Editing by Xavier Briand