The International Court of Justice's recent ruling, upholding Kosovo's 2008 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Serbia, has evoked a predictable response, reflecting geo-political divisions. Whereas Pristina's mostly western allies have welcomed the non-binding verdict in support of the ethnic Albanian majority decision, countries contending with their own secessionist demands — Spain, Russia and China — have cautioned against the assertiveness of the breakaway groups elsewhere. The repression of ethnic Albanians by former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic triggered Kosovan separatist demands in the 1990s. But the administration of the region, which is under U.N. peace-keeping for almost a decade since the 78-day long bombardment by the NATO forces, failed to produce a negotiated settlement. The Hague court has held that, as there is no bar under international law on the right to self-determination, Kosovo's declaration of independence does not constitute a violation. Nor is the principle of territorial integrity maintainable, since its scope is limited to the sphere of relations between sovereign countries. The court also ruled that the legitimacy of Kosovo's independence is a political fact that is determined by the recognition accorded by different countries, not a legal question. Such a general understanding perhaps explains why disputes over declarations of independence are rarely adjudicated at The Hague, and the case of Kosovo was the lone instance after the emergence of new countries from the collapse of Yugoslavia.
With the independence of Kosovo now a fait accompli and its membership of the U.N. a matter of time, the protection of its multi-ethnic character and the rights of Serbs and other minorities would be critical for peace and stability in the Balkans. The exuberant stance of the United States and its European allies on the secession of Kosovo was starkly at odds with their objection to Russia's recognition of the independence of the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008. The widespread questioning of their double standards on nationhood did little to stop them. The rules on the making and unmaking of states are not drawn in chambers of law. They are lessons inferred from the unfolding pages of history and the situation on the ground including effective control. To that extent, conflicts over sovereignty and self-determination are better resolved through multilateralism and mutual respect.