UN judges have ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia did not violate international law.

By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent
Published: 5:48PM BST 22 Jul 2010
The Daily Telegraph

The International Court of Justice rejected a Serbian attempt to have it declared an illegal state by saying it had not broken any conventions when it established independence two years.

Serbia condemned the ruling and said it would “never” recognise the predominantly Muslim territory. Church bells were sounded across the nation in protest.

The US State Department welcomed the verdict and called on European states to support Kosovo. Joe Biden, the vice-president, used a telephone to Serbia’s President Boris Tadic to demand Belgrade co-operate with the verdict.

Russia and China have refused to recognise Kosovo and fear the verdict will trigger a rash of demands for recognition in other areas.

There are breakaway republics in Cyprus, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan which could now seize upon the ruling to try to push their own claims.

Other countries including China, Spain, Canada and Russia also contain self governing territories that could also now attempt to declare independence and demand international recognition.

Serbia regards Kosovo as the country’s birthplace, tracing its roots back to Prince Lazar’s unsuccessful defence of the territory in 1389 as Ottoman invasion. The Muslim Kosovars are regarded as planters who were encouraged to spread into the area under Ottoman rule.

More than 10,000 Kosovans and hundreds of Serbs were killed in a bloody civil war following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

A 78-day Nato bombing campaign against Serbia in retaliation for two years of attacks on the province’s ethnic Albanian majority was launched in 1999. After a Serbian capitulation, a UN administration and Nato troops were installed to monitored ceasefire.

A total of 69 countries mainly in the West including Britain, have recognise Kosovo since it declared statehood in 2008. The state is likely to garner up to 40 more diplomatic partners in the wake of the ruling. That would be enough to join the UN though its application could still be vetoed.

Kosovo’s leaders said the ruling would eliminate doubts about its legitimacy Fatmir Sejdiu, the Kosovo president, said: “The decision finally removes all doubts that countries which still do not recognise the republic of Kosovo could have. “We call upon these countries to take a decision as soon as possible to recognise the republic of Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state.”

While the court endorsed the Kosovo declaration of independence, it did not set out a guide to how other breakaway territories could achieve international legitimacy. Judge Hisashi Owada, president of the ICJ, said: “The court considers that general international law contains no applicable prohibition of declaration of independence. Accordingly it concludes that the declaration of independence of the 17th of February 2008, did not violate general international law.”

Stefan Wolff, professor of International Security at University of Birmingham, said other areas fighting for independence may find the ruling too narrow to help their cause.

“The court has stuck very narrowly to the actual declaration of independence in Kosovo. There are no clear guidelines or something in there that would require international states to recognise Kosovo,” he said. “In that sense it’s quite useless.”

Serbia said it would continue to campaign against recognition of Kosovo. Vuk Jeremic, the foreign minister, said the court had failed to defend international law. Serbia had hoped an verdict rendering the declaration illegal would force the separatist administration in Pristina into negotiations over its future. Belgrade claims Kosovo is a haven for mafias that play a destabilising role in the Balkan economy. He warned that the ruling could trigger a violent backlash from the remaining Serbian residents of the territory.

“Difficult days are ahead of us,” he said. “It is of crucial importance to keep the peace and the stabilise the entire territory of the province. It is crucial that our citizens do not react to provocation.”

“We remain ready for negotiations. Our policy is not changing and remains set on a peaceful, diplomatic and political struggle to maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country.”