Decision in favour of Kosovo's independence could have far-reaching implications for other separatist movements
Peter Beaumont, guardian.co.uk -- Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 did not violate international law, the international court of justice (ICJ) said today in a groundbreaking ruling that could have far-reaching implications for separatist movements around the world, as well as for Belgrade's stalled EU membership talks.
The long-awaited ruling - which the court took up after a complaint to the UN from Serbia - is now likely to lead to more countries recognising Kosovo's independence and move Pristina closer to entry into the UN. At present, Kosovo's statehood is backed by 69 countries but it requires more than 100 before it can join the UN.
Announcing the decision, the court of justice president, Hisashi Owada, said international law contains no "prohibition on declarations of independence".
Although both Belgrade and Pristina had said they were confident of a ruling in their favour, speculation began to emerge a few hours before today's announcement in the Hague that the decision - which is not legally binding - had gone Kosovo's way.
Prior to the judgment, the US vice-president, Joe Biden, had made it clear that the US would not contemplate a retreat from Kosovo's newly independent status.
Key considerations that the UN's top court examined - arising out of dozens of submissions by UN member states as well as by Kosovo's own leadership - have focused on issues of sovereignty, the slim volume of precedent in international law, and how formerly large states such as the USSR broke up along administrative borders.
Serbia has continued to demand Kosovo be returned, arguing it has been the cradle of their civilisation and national identity since 1389, when a Christian army led by Serbian prince Lazar lost an epic battle to invading Ottoman forces.
The ruling is expected to have profound ramifications on the wider international stage, bolstering demands for recognition by territories as diverse as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.
The ICJ's ruling is not, however, expected to have an immediate impact on the situation on the ground in Kosovo, where a small area with a Serb majority has itself split away around the north of the town of Mitrovica, which has about 100,000 residents. That deadlock has sometimes erupted into violence, despite intense international efforts, with Serbs and Kosovans running their own areas.
Kosovo sparked sharp debate worldwide when it seceded from Serbia in 2008, following the bloody 1998-99 war and almost a decade of international administration. The 1998-99 war, triggered by a brutal crackdown by Serb forces against Kosovo's separatist ethnic Albanians, left about 10,000 ethnic Albanians dead before ending after a 78-day Nato bombing campaign. Hundreds of Serbs were also killed in retaliatory attacks.
Today's ruling will reinforce Kosovo's resistance to any kind of renegotiation - particularly over the status of the Serb majority areas in the north.
Kosovo's foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said before the ruling that reopening negotiations was "inconceivable".
Speaking yesterday, the Serbian foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, had warned that even in the event of a ruling against it, Belgrade would not be ready to give up its claim on Kosovo.
"Serbia will not change its position regarding Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence and necessity of a compromise," he said. "Our fight for such a solution will probably be long and difficult, but we will not give up."
Jeremic, who was in The Hague for the ruling, had said earlier that he expected the decision to vindicate Serbia, which would lead to new negotiations on both sides.
A US state department legal adviser, Harold Koh, said: "Serbia 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."Leading the other side of the argument is Serbia's traditional ally Russia, which has fought against its own separatist movement in Chechnya. Moscow has demanded Kosovo's independence be annulled, and last year was joined in its opposition by Spain and China, each also facing major secessionist movements.