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1 Dec, 2009 14:23

Kosovo argues case for statehood against strong Serbian opposition

The Hague today begins hearings into the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, which Serbia maintains is a violation of international law.

The court hearings, to run until December 11, will address the question of Kosovo’s decision to announce a “unilateral declaration of independence.”

The Kosovo Albanians’ snap decision to break away from Serbia on February 17, 2008 triggered an avalanche of condemnation from Belgrade, which successfully petitioned the UN General Assembly for a legal review of Kosovo’s announcement.

Serbia maintains that the ethnic Albanian territory is an inseparable part of its history and culture.

During Tuesday’s opening statements at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Dusan Batakovic, Serbia’s ambassador to France, called Kosovo the “historical cradle of Serbia.”

Since 1999, when NATO forces bombarded Serbia for 78 relentless days in an effort to end hostilities between the forces of then-President Slobodan Milosevic and the separatist Kosovo Albanians, the international community has been looking for some closure on the issue.

But there is a high probability that the ruling from the ICJ, whatever it may be, will create more questions than answers.

Hisashi Owada, President of the ICJ, said the advisory ruling will provide no definite answers.

“The advisory ruling will be on 30 pages, and there will be no clear-cut answer there, yes or no, for or against – it will simply have to be read,” Owada commented during a video-link between Moscow and The Hague that was organized by RIA Novosti in November.

After the court presents its findings, which is expected to take several months, it will be subject to legal interpretation from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and Belgrade. In other words, both sides will interpret the ruling in a way that favorably supports their stance, which will only serve to exasperate the issue.

“The judges may have different opinions, which sometimes do not tally,” Owada admitted.

The International Court of Justice

Established in 1945, The International Court of Justice (or ICJ) is the main judiciary branch of the United Nations. It is based in the Peace Palace in The Hague, Netherlands. Its primary duties are to settle legal disputes submitted to it by states and to give advisory opinions on legal questions submitted by international organizations, agencies and the UN General Assembly.

The ICJ should not be confused with the International Criminal Court, which also potentially has international jurisdiction.

The ICJ is composed of fifteen judges elected to nine year terms by the UN General Assembly and the UN Security Council from a list of persons nominated by the national groups in the Permanent Court of arbitration.

Presently, there are 12 cases pending in the World Court's docket.

The current president of the ICJ is Hisashi Owada, a former Japanese diplomat.

The ICJ, headquartered at The Hague, Netherlands, is the only international court with universal jurisdiction, but its decisions are not legally binding.

It has been reported that 36 states have passed their opinions to the international court on the issue of Kosovo’s statement of independence, including Russia and China, which side with Belgrade, and the United States, Britain and France, taking the side of the Albanian authorities.

“This is certainly an interesting case, and one that has attracted a lot of attention from all around the world,” Bojan Brkic, foreign policy editor with Public TV in Serbia, told RT. “Almost an unprecedented number of countries applied to state their opinion.”

Brkic mentioned the rare interest of China, the communist nation that has traditionally stayed on the sidelines whenever international intrigue is concerned.

“They [China] has chosen never to take sides,” Brkic said. “But this time they will.”

Serbian aims

Serbia’s main reason for bringing their case to the ICJ is to keep the question open, according to Brkic.

“What Serbia wants to achieve with this process is to keep this question open, to stress that this problem is not solved,” the Serbian foreign policy editor said. “Although other countries have recognized Kosovo (independence) that is something that still has to be decided upon. It is essential that the negotiations… continue until there is a solution where all parties feel that they have not lost everything.”

Only 63 nations – 22 representative of the European Union – recognize Kosovo's statehood. But the situation in and around Kosovo, where about 14,000 NATO troops are stationed to keep the peace, remains tense.

Analysts say Belgrade will probably argue before the ICJ that Kosovo’s fledgling institutions are not viable enough to support the mantle of sovereignty.

Indeed, UN-sponsored elections held last month in Kosovo were marred by violence and allegations of ballot-rigging by the opposition. Meanwhile, voter turnout was estimated at 45 percent amidst weak turnout from the minority native-Serbians living in Kosovo.

“Serbs in Kosovo are facing tough prospects,” added a European diplomat on the sidelines of the ICJ who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They have become an ethnic minority in a region that was once their native home. Every Serbian in Kosovo is coping to the best of their abilities. It has become something of a game of survival.”

Native Serbians in Kosovo make up an estimated 7 percent of the population of 2 million.

Serbia hopes that in a worse-case scenario, according to Brkic, the court makes “some sort of ambiguous opinion that under certain circumstances it can be legitimate, under certain circumstances it cannot… Then the struggle for the interpretation of the ruling will begin.”

Global ramifications

The International Court of Justice ruling will attempt to answer a question that carries global implications that will be felt from Palestine to South Ossetia:
What is more important, the self determination of nations, or respect for the sovereignty of racial groups of minority nationalities?

“If [an ethical group] doesn’t feel like living in one country they can simply decide to secede, to separate,” Brkic argued. “Or, alternatively, they [the ICJ] can say ‘under no circumstances can a [group of ethnic minorities] decide to leave their original country.’”

Brkic then offered his personal prediction on the much-anticipated court ruling.

“I personally think that it’s unlikely that the court will take a very definitive stance on this,” said the foreign policy editor. “They will probably take some sort of the middle [ruling] because they will want to leave future cases open for individual scrutiny.”

The ICJ has issued 25 advisory rulings since it started work in April 1946, but such opinions are not legally binding.

Robert Bridge, RT