International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on Kosovo's Declaration of Independence

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Telephonic Press Conference
Washington, DC
July 23, 2010

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Thanks very much, good morning everybody. Maybe I’ll just start with a brief comment and then I’ll look forward to your questions.

To kick it off I would just underscore that we were very pleased yesterday when the International Court of Justice issued its advisory opinion agreeing with our longstanding view that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was in accordance with international law, and that it did not violate Security Council Resolution 1244. This was the view that we had put forward in our briefs to the court, in the oral proceedings that the court held last December.

As you know, the United States strongly supports Kosovo as an independent state and its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and we believe that the opinion yesterday reinforced that view.

I would also underscore that the court’s opinion was closely tailored to the unique circumstances of Kosovo. This was about Kosovo. It was not about other regions or states. It doesn’t set any precedent for other regions or states.

So in the wake of this opinion as Secretary Clinton underscored in her statement yesterday, we think it’s time now to move forward and we would like to see all states in the region, we’d like to see Kosovo and Serbia move forward together constructively in support of peace and stability in the Balkans and we also encourage those states that have not yet done so to recognize Kosovo, as 69 countries already have and we believe there should more so that we can put this issue behind us.

Serbia and Kosovo are both good friends and partners of the United States. Vice President Biden met with Kosovo’s Prime Minister Thaci in Washington this week and he underscored that friendship and our strong support for Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Vice President also called President Tadić yesterday and underscored how we want to continue to work with Serbia and turn the page on the past and work better in the future.

Serbia and Kosovo should focus now on working together constructively to resolve the practical issues between them. There are a lot of issues for them to address. We strongly believe that this opinion is an opportunity to move forward constructively.

Why don’t I stop with that and just look forward to your questions.

Question: Probably something that will have to be sorted out between Serbia and Kosovo, and Belgrade is calling yesterday again for some “creative compromise for the lasting political solution.” What could be the outline of that compromise?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well, there needs to be a lasting solution. As I already stated, our strong view and one that we think the court’s opinion upheld yesterday is that Kosovo’s independence is a fact. It’s not in question. This is a sovereign, independent country. That, we believe, needs to be the starting point for any discussion, and discussions that we strongly support between Serbia and Kosovo should not be about the status of Kosovo which we think is a settled matter. That said, as I noted to begin, there are a lot of issues the neighbors need to sort out constructively on legal issues and energy and policing and customs and missing persons. The focus needs to be making better the lives of the people who live in Kosovo and Serbia including in northern Kosovo.

So long as the question of status and sovereignty and territorial integrity are clear, I think there are plenty of things these two governments can constructively talk about that would set them both on the path to integration with Europe which is really where their future lives.

Question: It has been mentioned that Prime Minister Thaci is now open for the idea of autonomy for the Serbs on the north of Kosovo. What is the position of the United States regarding that?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Prime Minister Thaci can speak for himself about his views on the northern part of Kosovo. I think I already stated our view of the subject. We support the approach that the international community has been pushing for some time, and that would follow up, I think, the steps the government of Kosovo has already taken in creating municipalities that have Serb majorities and the people there elect their own leaders, and now you have ethnic Serb mayors from those municipalities. That is working reasonably well in other parts of the country and not yet in the north. I believe the government of Kosovo’s approach is to carry on with that process. We strongly support it and we think that is the way forward.

Question: I’d like to change the kind of topic and I would like to talk about the recognition process after ICJ opinion. Does the U.S. government which has supported Kosovo independence from the beginning, have any plan to support, assist Kosovo authorities, Kosovo government for wider recognition? And do you have any assessment maybe how many countries have recognized Kosovo until the end of this year, for example?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: The short answer to your question is yes, we will continue to support Kosovo in winning recognition of its independence. There is nothing new there. We have ourselves from the day of the declaration of independence recognized it and encouraged others to do so because we’ve always believed that is the right thing for peace and stability in the region. As I noted already, 69 countries have done so, including most of Kosovo’s neighbors and the vast majority of the members of the European Union and we’ll continue to do that.

I think that a number of countries have been waiting for this opinion. They were asked to wait for the opinion including by Serbia, which noted and we agreed that it is a positive thing that Serbia is pursuing this issue, its difference with us and Kosovo on this issue, through legal and diplomatic channels rather than through conflict, which is the right approach. It was taken as a legal matter to the International Court of Justice, a body of the UN, and the ICJ issued its opinion which is very clear, that the declaration of independence was in accordance with international law. So those countries who were waiting for the court as they were asked to do we think now will be in a position to recognize Kosovo knowing that the declaration of independence was not illegal, was in accordance with international law. But we’ll be talking to our friends who haven’t yet recognized and underscoring this case, and we are hopeful that a number of them will do so. I don’t have a number to offer you. I said 69 already have. I think there are many other dozens of countries that have been waiting to see what the court says. And now we hope that many of them will move forward and see the status issue as a settled matter so that we can get on with what really matters, which is improving the lives of the people who live there.

Question: Mr. Gordon, do you have any specific strategy of working with those EU countries that have failed to recognize Kosovo?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We’re in touch with all of them about this issue and many others. Recognizing a country is a sovereign act. It is up to these countries whether or not to recognize Kosovo or anyone else. It’s not our decision. All we can do is explain why we think it’s the right thing to do, why we think it’s legal, why we think it contributes to peace and stability, why we think, frankly, that the failure to do so is a setback for putting this issue behind us and moving forward and getting both Serbia and Kosovo into the EU. We actually think we have a very strong case to make on that and we’ll make it in a friendly -- all of the non-recognizers in the EU are close friends of the United States. We work well with them. We’ll continue to articulate our view. I’m sure they’ll articulate theirs. And we’ll continue to have the discussion.

Question: Serbia has already announced that it is going to raise that issue again in the UN General Assembly, to turn it back to the General Assembly. What’s the American stand on that?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I’m sure the issue will come up in the General Assembly. The General Assembly is the body that put the question to the ICJ, so it’s entirely appropriate that the General Assembly respond in the wake of the opinion.

We think that, again, the opinion was very clear. It wasn’t a close call. It was a decisive answer to the question that the General Assembly posed. I suspect that the General Assembly will take note of that answer. Our view in the General Assembly and I think the view of many, will be that this resolves the issue of the legality of the declaration. So we’re happy to have that discussion back at the UN. As I say, we just hope that members of the General Assembly will use this as an opportunity to turn the page on the status debate and get on with improving relations between the countries.

Let me just again underscore. This shouldn’t be seen as a win or a loss for anyone. It’s an opportunity for everybody to win, and it’s not anti-Serbia, it is as I say, an opportunity to get on with what will be in the interest of both countries.

Question: Do you believe, Mr. Gordon, that there should be an evaluation of international presence in Kosovo in light of new circumstances? And let’s say, how do you see the UN mission after ICJ opinion? And do you plan to pursue a new resolution in the Security Council, let’s say?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We’re constantly reviewing, as we should be, the international presence in Kosovo. Ideally we’d like to get to a place where there is no international presence needed, neither military nor political. We’re not there yet. KFOR is still there, EULEX is still there. But hopefully this opinion will be one step further down the path of security so that KFOR’s presence can be reduced and eventually eliminated, and that we will continue to support Kosovo in its efforts to uphold the rule of law throughout the country in a way that will make EULEX unnecessary. Again, we’re not there yet, but this should be a step forward in that direction. That’s where we’d like to get. Kosovo is already only two years into its history, making great strides as a functioning sovereign government. There is more work to do, particularly in the north, and that’s why the EULEX mission which the United States participates in, is there to help. And there are still some security issues, and that’s why KFOR remains and we will remain in KFOR as long as it’s necessary. But our goal here, and we think the opinion helps us move in this direction, is to see Kosovo functioning entirely independently without the need for this international support.

Question: Just to follow-up, if I can. Until now it has been used the term “supervised independence” based on the Ahtisaari plan. Do you think that it’s time to delete the “supervised” word, and let’s say that Kosovo is an independent country and we are not talking any more for supervised independence.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We already think that Kosovo is an independent country. As I noted, there are some particularities including the need for a European Union led rule of law mission, but as we move forward there needs to be less and less supervision and more and more independence.

Question: Do you see any deadline for EULEX when to leave Kosovo?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No. I think I would say the same about the EULEX mission and the KFOR mission. When the mission is complete will be the right time for those outside actors to leave.

Question: I would like to go back to the first question you got from my colleague about the possible dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Can you tell us in your view, is it possible for a dialogue if Belgrade doesn’t change its approach towards Kosovo? How you can talk of practical matters if you don’t recognize a neighbor country? Do you think that dialogue will be possible only the moment that Serbia will recognize Kosovo?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No. I think dialogue is both possible and necessary even prior to that. We don’t expect Serbia to immediately recognize Kosovo. We would like to see that, obviously, but there’s no sign that that’s in the immediate future. But that doesn’t need to be the prerequisite for constructive engagement between the two sides. And nobody has insisted that it be the prerequisite. We’ve made clear that any dialogue between the two must not be about status, which would not be productive. First of all, it wouldn’t happen. Both sides won’t agree to do that. And it wouldn’t lead us anywhere.

So what we really need to have is for the two sides to put that issue aside and show that they can work on issues that matter to the people who live there, and the recognition issue can be dealt with down the road. But we’re trying to create the conditions for these two countries to move forward together and the absence of dialogue is not going to help anyone.

Question: One last question. The Serbian government fought very hard to prevent recognition for Kosovo and now that policy, it seems that it failed. Do you think it’s time for more deliberation within the Serbian government on that issue?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Yes, I hope that there will be deliberation in Belgrade on that issue because I don’t think that fighting to prevent more recognition is the path to success. Again, this should not, this wasn’t a loss for anybody, and it is something, we have a disagreement with the government of Serbia on the question of recognition, but we also have many agreements with the government of Serbia and this difference doesn’t stand in the way of the better relations that we would like to see. But we don’t think that attempts by Serbia to prevent further recognitions will do anything for Serbia or for the Serbs who live in Kosovo or for the region. That’s why we’re encouraging Serbia to focus on practical talks with Kosovo rather than on some effort that’s not likely to succeed to prevent the more and more recognitions of Kosovo that may be on the way. Focusing on preventing recognition is not the way to look towards a positive future. That’s looking towards the past, and we’re encouraging all sides to look towards the future.

Thank you.

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