The United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), on Thursday ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was “legal,” exhibiting notable signs that the historic ruling might set a precedent for Turkish Cyprus
Experts argue that the ruling’s numerous justifications also apply to Turkish Cyprus.
Countries that are largely obsessed with separatist movements within their territories have already started to discuss the July 22 decision of the ICJ on Kosovo’s declaration of independence, not questioning its legitimacy but ruling out arguments that the decision will become a general guiding principle for other territorial disputes. The UN’s highest court ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was “legal” and “did not violate general international law.”
With a population of 2 million, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, after long and fruitless talks with Serbia. Initially, only several countries, including Turkey, recognized its independence. Today, the number of countries that recognize the newest country in the Balkans is 69.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is visiting Greek Cyprus on Friday, dismissed speculation that the ICJ’s ruling could lead to the recognition of Turkish Cyprus, which has been recognized only by Turkey.
Westerwelle said the ICJ ruling on Kosovo’s status does not apply to Cyprus or other countries. “The decision has nothing to do with any other case in the world,” he said. “This is a very specific case, and it is a unique decision concerning a specific historic situation.”
“I absolutely disagree with Westerwelle,” Gözde Yaşın Kılıç, an expert on the region from the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis (TÜRKSAM), said in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. “The court did not stress that Kosovo is a unique case and that it could not serve as a precedent.” Kılıç noted that countries which have not recognized Kosovo have minority problems and that this is the reason why they claim that the Kosovo ruling cannot be a precedent.
Serbia lost control of Kosovo in 1999 following a NATO bombardment meant to halt the killing of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war.
In contrast, US State Department legal advisor Harold Hongju Koh, as he spoke at the Washington Foreign Press Center on Thursday, said he thinks the court ruling is very much tailored to Kosovo’s specific situation. “If you just look at the pages of the opinion, and we’ve studied them only quickly, obviously, it is a highly Kosovo-specific analysis on the legal issue,” the lawyer said.
Western and UN diplomats reiterated that the Kosovo case is “unique” and should not apply to other minorities claiming emancipation. “These statements are made to urge countries that have not done it yet to recognize Kosovo,” Kılıç stated.
The ICJ has yet to release the justification for its ruling, which will make it more clear whether or not the ruling might mean a precedent for other cases in the broader region, particularly Cyprus. “As I closel y followed the court case, I estimate the racist treatment to Kosovar Albanians and atrocities previously committed, among other things, will be the basis for the ruling,” Kılıç said, adding that a very similar case exists in Cyprus.
A special international body has ruled Kosovo for more than a decade subsequent to fierce fighting in 1998-99 with Serbia. NATO troops and the European Union peacekeeping mission have been in Kosovo since NATO’s 79-day bombing of Belgrade in 1999. Ninety percent of Kosovo’s population is ethnic Albanian; the rest are mostly Serbs.
The United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution in May 1999, reaffirming Serbia’s territorial integrity, but also called for a meaningful autonomy for Kosovo. The ICJ’s ruling was not to determine whether or not Kosovo’s independence was legal, but if the declaration of independence was made in accordance with international law.
“The court therefore considers that it cannot accept the argument that resolution 1244  contains a prohibition, binding on the authors of the declaration of independence, against declaring independence.”
“This is the most important part regarding the recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’s [KKTC] independence,” Kılıç claimed. She said the biggest hurdle in the KKTC’s recognition is the UN Security Council resolution that prohibits the recognition of the KKTC. “The ruling has dispersed speculation, confirming that the declaration of independence might be legal despite the Security Council resolutions,” she stressed.
The recognition of Kosovo by Serbia would be a bold move that would establish peace and stability in the region. However, Serbia previously vowed that it is determined not to recognize the newly independent country. Despite this, it was Serbia that took the issue of Kosovo to the ICJ, so the ruling seems to have backfired on it. Furthermore, Serbian President Boris Tadic said Serbia will propose to the UN General Assembly in September a resolution on Kosovo that will represent a “compromise” between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians.
Hasan Ünal from Bilkent University, who has written extensively on the subject, said the current pro-EU Serbian government is trying to persuade its electorate that it could not do much vis-a-vis the Kosovo question.
As the ICJ’s decision was non-binding, observers claim the ruling has turned out to be a political statement rather than a legal one.
Ruling out claims that the Kosovo ruling is not a precedent for Cyprus, Ünal said, “The ruling is a direct precedent for Cyprus.” Although Kosovo was not a founding state of Yugoslavia, Ünal said, it has autonomy and possesses equal rights with other states. “The Cypriot constitution also included a devolution of power based on nations with two entities,” he added.
Another implication might be that the ruling could spur further recognition of Kosovo, of which it is not really in desperate need. Twenty-two European Union countries have already done so and more are expected to follow. Analysts also argue that it might soon be accepted as a member of the UN.
But admission requires a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, including all five permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. Initial reactions from Russia and China signal that these countries are dissatisfied with the ruling, as both countries suffer from unrest caused by restive minorities.