Friday, 10 October 2008

Opposing international law for Kosovo

On Wednesday the United Nations General Assembly agreed to refer Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence to the International Court of Justice. On Comment is Free, Ian Bancroft asks why most European Union countries elected not to back Serbia’s request to have the matter’s legality tested.

The bulk of EU countries abstained from the vote, although the UK referred to Serbia’s request as ‘highly political’. The US did not even adhere to such proprieties, showing its disdain for international law by voting with 5 other opposed members. Albania and four microstates made up this sextet.

Serbia’s request for an advisory decision from the ICJ is an honourable route to take. It shows willingness to seek resolution through diplomacy, arbitration and international law, rather than through force or other strong arm tactics. Kosovo’s independence is recognised by 48 states, but 140 countries dissent from this view. The Serbian province’s status is manifestly a matter of international contention and as such it represents exactly the kind of dispute which it is appropriate to refer to the ICJ.

The disregard which EU states, and particularly the Americans, are showing toward international law, comes hot on the heals of its frenzied citation to support Georgian aggression against South Ossetia. The hypocrisy is startling. Bancroft points out that, in order to discourage Serbia from its recourse to international law, attempts were made to link any challenge with the Balkan state’s mooted accession to the EU. French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner warned “we have reiterated numerous times that Serbia cannot seek to join the European Union while also asking Europe to agree with the initiative”.

Although a ruling from the ICJ would not be binding, it carries considerable moral authority. The independence debate has been stifled in some EU countries but it is a live and contentious issue in others and a verdict of illegality from the ICJ would intensify the arguments. That is both healthy and correct.

Not only is Serbia within its rights in referring Kosovo’s independence to the International Court of Justice (as attested to by the UN’s verdict), but it should be congratulated for taking the appropriate route toward peaceful, multilateral resolution of its dispute. In contrast European states and the US are showing disdain for international law, which can only weaken its institutions. Once again it should be no surprise when Russia and others remember this ambivalence when next it suits the west to evoke international law for its own benefit.

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