So Kosovo is legal. What happens now?

So Kosovo is legal. What happens now?

The International Court of Justice ruled today that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia is legal under international law. Here’s the AP write-up:

The nonbinding opinion by the International Court of Justice sets the stage for Kosovo to renew its appeals for further international recognition. The tiny Balkan country has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States and most European Union nations. It needs 100 for full statehood.

"Kosovo’s historic victory should not be felt as loss in Belgrade," Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said, calling the ruling "the best possible answer for the entire world." Kosovo’s foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said upon leaving the court, "my message to the government of Serbia is ‘Come and talk to us.’"

Serbia quickly denounced the ruling and vowed it would never recognize Kosovo as separate.

The opinion — passed in a 10-4 vote by court judges read by court president Hisashi Owada — says international law contains "no … prohibition of declarations of independence" and therefore Kosovo’s declaration "did not violate general international law."

One quick note, I have no clue where the idea that 100 countries is the magic number for full recognition comes from and the AP gives no source. I put in a quick call to international law professor Stefan Talmon of Oxford University, who literally wrote the book on this topic, and he had never heard of it before either.

If only things were more simple. The question of when a terroritory can legally be considered a state under international law is far from settled, as I wrote here. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the most commonly cited agreegment in these cases, a state must have a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Of course, there are plenty of places that don’t meet one or more of these conditions that are considered states, and some that do but remain unrecognized. That’s where recognition comes in as an extra stamp of legitimacy. With the court’s decision, it’s certainly possible that more hold-out countries may join the 69 on Kosovo’s thank-you list, but there’s no magic number at which it officially becomes a real country, and U.N. membership is unlikely as long as Russia has veto power. 

The ICJ website appears to be down at the moment, making it impossible to read the judges’ decision, but the text is sure to be pored over by semi-states from Transnistria to Somaliland, all of whom are looking for Kosovo-like legitimacy. In the same way that Russia used U.S. recognition of Kosovo as a precedent to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, these states are sure to use the ICJ’s judgement to further bolster their case for greater recognition. Sure enough, just moments after the decision, I received a statement on the news from Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh in my inbox: 

"The international court’s decision once again reaffirmed Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s rights to self-determination. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, meantime, have far more historical and legal
grounds for independence than Kosovo does." 

"This decision also showed the rightfulness of Russia’s actions, which was the first to recognize
Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence.”

"…this decision will encourage further recognition of Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence by other countries…"


Stay tuned.