Trial and Error

World Court Ponders Kosovo "Independence"

In October 2008, the government in Belgrade gloated for one whole day because the UN General Assembly allowed it to request an advisory opinion from the World Court (International Court of Justice) concerning the "independence" of its occupied province of Kosovo. Only Albania and three South Pacific states joined the U.S. in opposing the request. That may have been slightly embarrassing for Washington, but did absolutely nothing to derail its pet project in the Balkans.

Most likely, neither will the World Court’s decision in the proceedings that finally began at The Hague this week. A ruling by the ICJ matters only to those who abide by international law to begin with. It will have zero effect on countries that have already decided they were above such law and demonstrated this by setting up the "Independent state of Kosovo," or invading Iraq.

Law and Politics

Though it is a legitimate international court (unlike the ad hoc "Tribunal" for war crimes in Yugoslavia, also seated at The Hague), the ICJ has not been immune to matters of politics and power. In 1999, it famously refused to hear Yugoslavia’s case against NATO countries, claiming it had no jurisdiction in the matter.

Just a few years later, however, the ICJ decided Yugoslavia had standing to be sued by the "Bosnian" government (a case originally filed in 1993). Those expecting another railroading of Serbia (Yugoslavia having ceased to exist in 2006), were surprised by the verdict in March 2007, which absolved it of any responsibility for the atrocities in Bosnia.

Currently, the ICJ is also preparing to hear Croatia’s claim that Serbia (!?) committed "genocide" during the 1991-95 conflict. Given that Croatia has either exterminated or expelled its Serb inhabitants, the outcome of this trial ought to be interesting, to say the least.

However, the ICJ president, Hisashi Owada, said in an interview last week that the eventual decision might be ambiguous. Though the ICJ officials have backtracked somewhat since, there is no reason to doubt Owada’s surfeit of honesty. Though all the legal arguments are on Serbia’s side, nine of the 15 judges hearing the case come from countries that have already recognized the Albanian claim to the occupied province. And the Empire has already launched a full assault in the court of public opinion.

Full Court Press

"Serbia Assails Kosovo at UN Court" screamed an AFP headline to a story that could have just as well been written by the PR department of the "government of Kosovo." From the choice of adjectives to the placement of factoids, everything in it bolsters the Albanian case and dismissed the Serb arguments out of hand. Yet it is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather an exemplar of coverage that has accompanied the proceedings.

A somewhat more balanced offering by Reuters was nonetheless headlined, "Kosovo tells world court independence ‘irreversible.’"

The AP headlined its report, "Kosovo tells court its independence is permanent" and led with a reminder that "NATO air strikes ended Serbia’s bloody crackdown on its rebellious province."

Nor did any agency choose to present the statement by "Kosovian" envoy Skender Hyseni about the possibility of new conflict as the threat it manifestly was.

Going Through the Motions

It doesn’t help Serbia’s case any that its challenge before the ICJ is a publicity stunt. The current regime in Belgrade, installed through the efforts of Washington and Brussels, doesn’t want to fight for Kosovo. It was President Tadic and his Democratic Party that scuttled the previous government’s efforts to mount a response to Kosovo’s declaration of dependence, bringing down the government in the process. Though its electoral slogan was "Both Kosovo and the EU," it has since done everything to suck up to the EU, and nothing to recover Kosovo.

However, the majority of Serbians remain dead set against surrendering the province. So the government makes a show of fighting – but only through "peaceful, diplomatic means" – in order to dampen popular discontent, until the media can sufficiently anaesthetize the population into "accepting reality."

No, the current Serbian government isn’t serious about recovering the occupied province. Tadic told the BBC as much this week: "This isn’t about reintegrating Kosovo within Serbia." No, it’s about establishing his credentials – to the Empire as a peaceful and obedient vassal, and to his people as a patriot.

No matter how Tadic spins it, however, his actions speak louder than words. Were his regime truly concerned about the integrity of Serbia, it wouldn’t have gone and resurrected the Communist-era abomination that was the "Autonomous Province of Vojvodina," in effect a separate state within Serbia, earlier this week.

A Hidden Challenge

Between its own waffling, Imperial intransigence, and Belgrade’s insincere defense of Serbia’s rights, it is entirely possible the ICJ will end up finding some sort of pretense on which Washington’s pet project will be deemed acceptable. Then again, the ICJ could surprise, just as it did in 2007.

Either way, a decision favoring Serbia will fail to sway Washington. There was never any legal backing for either the 1999 war, the subsequent occupation, or the 2008 declaration of "independence" – but the Empire went ahead and did it anyway. The 2003 Iraq war was blatant aggression if ever there was such, and the world basically shrugged it off. Washington and its allies have known full well and all along that their adventures in Kosovo and Iraq were illegal. They simply didn’t care.

They do care, however, about legitimacy and credibility – to the point where they set up an "Independent International Commission" to whitewash the war in 2000 as "illegal but legitimate."

This is where the current case before the World Court holds a hidden danger for the Empire. It is one thing to flout the law with impunity. It is quite another to call such of behavior legal. As the case proceeds and 29 countries present their arguments – including China, for the very first time – it will be difficult for the rest of the world not to see that the self-appointed "world policeman" doesn’t actually care about the law, only power. And at that point, the Empire’s vaunted "credibility" will be damaged beyond repair.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.