Serbia rejects UN legal ruling on Kosovo's secession

Serbs stand with flags in the Serbian part of Mitrovica, Kosovo, 22 July Serbian flags flew in the Kosovo Serb stronghold of northern Mitrovica

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Serbia has said it will never recognise Kosovo's independence after UN judges ruled that its secession declaration in 2008 had not broken international law.

Their non-binding decision found no reason to prohibit the Serbian province's declaration, made after nine years of de facto independence.

Belgrade, which lost Kosovo after a Nato bombing campaign, argues the move violated its territorial integrity.

The US welcomed the ruling and urged European nations to unite behind it.

The judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague said their ruling was restricted to the secession declaration itself and did not address the wider issue of Kosovo independence.

But Kosovo's government hopes the result will prompt many countries that have not recognised an independent Kosovo to follow the 69 states that have done so.

The ICJ decision opens up the possibility that Serbia will fight in the UN General Assembly to solve the dispute through negotiations, the BBC's Mark Lowen reports from Belgrade.

Other countries facing their own secessionist problems, from Spain to China, may view the result with concern, our correspondent notes.

"Serbia will never recognise the unilaterally proclaimed independence of Kosovo," Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters in Belgrade after the ruling.

Mr Tadic, a reformist, stressed that Serbia would not resort to violence and would prefer to negotiate a compromise with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders.

Analysis

This opinion will not change any facts on the ground. Kosovo will still regard itself as independent. Serbia will still want what it sees as its territory back.

But the decision will nonetheless have significant ramifications. There is nothing more sensitive in international affairs than sovereignty and borders.

If Kosovo's independence is in accordance with international law, Moscow may ask, why shouldn't Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence from Georgia be viewed in the same way?

Indeed, why shouldn't other disputed border questions be revisited? Bosnia's borders may be a case in point.

The implications will make any country with separatist movements worry about the future.

He acknowledged the ruling was "a difficult decision for Serbia" but said Belgrade would continue to try for a UN resolution that would urge both sides to start a dialogue.

Russia, which has historic ties with Serbia, said its position of not recognising Kosovo's independence remained unchanged.

In Spain, the biggest of the five EU states not to have recognised Kosovo, a foreign ministry spokesperson said Madrid respected the court ruling. The spokesperson would not be drawn on whether it would lead Spain to reconsider its decision on non-recognition.

Cyprus reaffirmed its support for Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity "which includes the Kosovo and Metohija province".

Diplomatic victory

Kosovan Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni said there was no alternative for Belgrade but to work together with Pristina "on a joint European and Nato perspective".

"This is the time for co-operation and constructive approaches rather than for the destruction that we used to see," he said.

Our correspondent says memories of that destruction - the 1990s war in Kosovo between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian separatists - are still raw in the region.

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And he adds that although Kosovo has never truly recovered - its economy is weak, unemployment chronically high and its infrastructure still devastated - it has just scored a major diplomatic victory and now has the momentum.

Kosovo Albanians have been celebrating in the streets, waving the flags of both Kosovo and neighbouring Albania.

Serbian troops were driven out of Kosovo in 1999 after a Nato bombing campaign aimed at halting the violent repression of a separatist campaign by the ethnic Albanian majority.

Kosovo was then administered by the UN with the support of the Nato-led peacekeepers (K-For) until February 2008, when its parliament voted to declare independence.

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