The Hague’s Balkan Confusion

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Laura Boushnak/AFP/Getty Images

Kosovo Albanians celebrating in Mitrovica, a city divided between Albanians and Serbians, following the ICJ ruling on the legality of Kosovo’s independence, July 22, 2010

There is nothing very surprising about the ruling by the International Court of Justice that Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was legal. As one would expect, the Serbian government—which had challenged the declaration before the court and remained to the end optimistic of winning—was stunned by the answer, while the Albanians in Kosovo cheered. But the ruling simply upholds the largely uncontroversial assertion that international law does not include any “prohibition of declarations of independence”; anyone can, if she so wishes, make such a declaration. In contrast, the court was notably silent about what happens afterwards—whether the new state is recognized or not by the international community—carefully avoiding any mention of the legality of Kosovo as a state. This is a shame, because it returns the issue to the international community, which has lacked all consistency in its approach to secessionists in Serbia’s neighborhood.

During the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the millions of its citizens who wished the Yugoslav federation to survive intact argued that the multiple declarations of independence were a violation of the federal constitution or some international law. They got no sympathy from anyone. The truth is that there are secessionist movements all over the world, but unless a minority determined to secede from a country has powerful outside backers willing to support them militarily—and close their eyes if they commit human rights abuses or other outrages—their chances are slim. That’s why most of the liberation movements from the Corsicans in France to the Tamils in Sri Lanka have never resulted in independence. Doing something about their repression and their longings to have a state of their own is not in the interest of one or another big power, although the US and its allies usually like to pretend that the rights of minorities are uppermost on their minds.

When US officials declared that Kosovo was a unique case that will not set any historical precedent, they had that double-standard in mind. Shortly before the court announced its decision, Vice President Biden reaffirmed the US’s support for the people of Kosovo, making it clear that even if the decision of the court goes against them, it will change nothing as far as the US is concerned. The Serbs, of course, believed that once everyone could see that justice was on their side—once the Hague court had ruled that the unilateral declaration of independence by temporary institutions of self government in Kosovo was illegal—then the sixty-nine countries that already recognized Kosovo (including, along with the United States, much of the EU) would reconsider their decisions. The international community would force the Albanians to go back to the negotiating table and accept the Serbian offer of a high level of autonomy short of independence.

National leaders who are unable to imagine any course of events independent of their fantasies are bound to cause great harm to their people. Promising Serbs that you will never recognize Kosovo may seem like a shrewd political move, but all it does is continue a policy of let’s pretend black is white. This sort of idiocy ought to be familiar to us, fighting a “war on terror” that, we are told, may take another fifty years to win, without considering that sooner or later, it is not only going to bankrupt us, but also destroy our democracy.

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Ramush Haradinaj, former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, 1998

Another important event related to Serbia and Kosovo occurred the very same day the court announced its decision. This was the re-arrest, in the Kosovo capital of Pristina, of Ramush Haradinaj, an ex-commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army and ex-premier of Kosovo, who has been accused of war crimes against Serbs, Romas, and Albanians and is particularly hated in Serbia. Haradinaj had earlier been arrested and transferred to the International Tribunal in The Hague, but was freed in April of 2008 for lack of evidence. His re-arrest came after the prosecutors in the original case appealed, complaining to the court that intimidation and mysterious killing of several witnesses had prevented the rendering of justice.

Was this pure coincidence, or did the two separate courts in The Hague consult and come up with a solution? Let’s give the Serbs Haradinaj, since we are going to disappoint them about Kosovo, not to mention give the impression that ethnically cleansing and murdering Serbs in the province is not a punishable offense. Whatever really took place, it points once again to the unsatisfactory and unequal dispensing of justice in regard to war crimes committed during the dissolution of former Yugoslavia, where powerful outside interests, starting with the United States, refuse to give equal weight to crimes committed by different ethnic groups.


So what happens now? Serbia intends to raise the issue of Kosovo again in the U.N. general assembly meeting in September, which I imagine will be met by little enthusiasm by the delegates. For their part, Kosovo’s leaders will expect thirty-one more countries to recognize it so it can become a member, but it doesn’t seem likely that countries that have separatist movements of their own like Spain and China will change their mind any time soon.

Back home, the hundred thousand Serbs in northern Kosovo, who privately wouldn’t mind separating from the new state they are now geographically part of and rejoining Serbia, in exchange for the establishment of an area in Serbia dominated by Albanians, will have to wait and hope Pristina doesn’t decide to forcibly incorporate them into Kosovo. In the meantime, I cannot imagine any resolution to the conflict as long as United States and European Union insist that borders cannot be adjusted and the politicians on one side of the border find it profitable to use their defeat to stir up nationalist sentiments, and on the other side to do the very same thing, because of their victory in The Hague.

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