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World Court Upholds Kosovo's Declaration of Independence


On July 22, 2010, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations seated in The Hague (The Netherlands), ruled that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence and secession from the Republic of Serbia over the latter's objection did not violate international law.

The ICJ ruling, adopted by 10 votes to four, was issued in the form of a non-binding Advisory Opinion following a request from the UN General Assembly initiated by Serbia in late 2008.

The ICJ found that international law, including relevant UN law and practice, contains no prohibition of declarations of independence. Therefore, the adoption on February 17, 2008 of the declaration of independence by the "Provisional Institutions of Self-Government of Kosovo," acting as representatives of the people of Kosovo, did not violate any applicable rule of international law.

Given the narrow scope of the question posed to it, the ICJ refrained from ruling on the issue of whether or not Kosovo has achieved statehood or on that of the legal consequences of Kosovo's declaration.

Kosovo, a territory in the Balkans with some 1.8 million inhabitants, has been recognized as an independent state by 69 countries, including most members of the European Union (except Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain) as well as the United States. The ICJ ruling, which does not address the validity or legal effects of such acts of recognition, likely will trigger further international recognition of Kosovo and eventually could result in Kosovo being admitted as the 193 rd Member State of the United Nations. This development also could fuel the strive for independence by breakaway regions and separatist movements in countries around the world. The ICJ was careful to point out that it was "not required by the question it has been asked to take a position … on whether international law generally confers an entitlement on entities situated within a State unilaterally to break away from it."

While Advisory Opinions of the ICJ formally speaking are non-binding, this does not mean that such rulings are without legal effect: the legal reasoning embodied in them reflects the ICJ's authoritative views on important issues of international law and, in arriving at them, the ICJ follows essentially the same rules and procedures that govern its binding judgments delivered in contentious cases between sovereign states. An Advisory Opinion derives its status and authority from the fact that it is the official pronouncement of the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. A subsequent resolution of the UN General Assembly endorsing the ICJ's Opinion sometimes lends further authority to such a ruling, especially if it is adopted by a large majority of votes.

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