So Kosovo is legal. What happens now?

The International Court of Justice ruled today that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia is legal under international law. Here's the AP write-up:

The nonbinding opinion by the International Court of Justice sets the stage for Kosovo to renew its appeals for further international recognition. The tiny Balkan country has been recognized by 69 countries, including the United States and most European Union nations. It needs 100 for full statehood.

"Kosovo's historic victory should not be felt as loss in Belgrade," Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said, calling the ruling "the best possible answer for the entire world." Kosovo's foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said upon leaving the court, "my message to the government of Serbia is 'Come and talk to us.'"

Serbia quickly denounced the ruling and vowed it would never recognize Kosovo as separate.

The opinion — passed in a 10-4 vote by court judges read by court president Hisashi Owada — says international law contains "no ... prohibition of declarations of independence" and therefore Kosovo's declaration "did not violate general international law."

One quick note, I have no clue where the idea that 100 countries is the magic number for full recognition comes from and the AP gives no source. I put in a quick call to international law professor Stefan Talmon of Oxford University, who literally wrote the book on this topic, and he had never heard of it before either.

If only things were more simple. The question of when a terroritory can legally be considered a state under international law is far from settled, as I wrote here. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the most commonly cited agreegment in these cases, a state must have a permanent population, a defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Of course, there are plenty of places that don't meet one or more of these conditions that are considered states, and some that do but remain unrecognized. That's where recognition comes in as an extra stamp of legitimacy. With the court's decision, it's certainly possible that more hold-out countries may join the 69 on Kosovo's thank-you list, but there's no magic number at which it officially becomes a real country, and U.N. membership is unlikely as long as Russia has veto power. 

The ICJ website appears to be down at the moment, making it impossible to read the judges' decision, but the text is sure to be pored over by semi-states from Transnistria to Somaliland, all of whom are looking for Kosovo-like legitimacy. In the same way that Russia used U.S. recognition of Kosovo as a precedent to recognize the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, these states are sure to use the ICJ's judgement to further bolster their case for greater recognition. Sure enough, just moments after the decision, I received a statement on the news from Abkhazian President Sergei Bagapsh in my inbox: 

"The international court's decision once again reaffirmed Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's rights to self-determination. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, meantime, have far more historical and legal
grounds for independence than Kosovo does." 

"This decision also showed the rightfulness of Russia's actions, which was the first to recognize
Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence.”

"…this decision will encourage further recognition of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence by other countries…"


Stay tuned. 

Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images


The HIV/AIDS wars in Vienna

Whether activists and politicians want to admit it, there is a heated fight going on at and surrounding the International AIDS Conference going on in Vienna.

The debate is one that I wrote about a few weeks back: over spending on life-saving anti-retroviral treatments for AIDS patients in the developing world. More than half of those receiving treatment today are funded by the U.S. government. But those numbers won't keep edging up as fast as expected. And activists -- including Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in the New York Times today -- are accusing the U.S. government of walking away from a crisis. The Obama administration is also fighting back. An op-ed by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an advisor to the president in the Office of Management in Budget, counters in the Huffington Post.

Both sides are right. But to be honest, I think they are also both asking the wrong questions. And the one I keep asking myself is this: Are fights like this really helpful? This fight seems to have paralyzed all other discussion, pushing debates about prevention, about coinciding diseases like tuberculosis, even about mother-to-child transmission, to the background -- at least to the back of what the public is hearing from the conference. If there's concern about dollars spent, the Obama administration is pledging a whopping $63 billion in new global health spending. Why not focus on how great that could be for HIV/AIDS patients -- if people cooperate and get on board?

I guess this is an inevitable outcome of the scarcity of money and plethora of demands in the world -- we have to fight for priorities. And I'm saying that sometimes a fight isn't a good thing; that's how HIV/AIDS got on the policy agenda in the first place, and it's been a long, uphill battle.

But in this case, everyone actually agrees on the importance of HIV/AIDS. They just don't agree how to do it. Attacks against the other side's committment to the cause aren't helpful; better to sit down and learn from one another. Sounds like a kumbaya moment, I know, but I still don't think it's such a bad idea. It's distressing to think that something that should be as uniting as stopping HIV/AIDS has pitted so many well-intentioned people against one another. (These fights happen with alarming frequency in the world of development aid, though it's rare we see it so publicly.)

So a plea from an outsider: Remember what you're fighting against. (Hint: it's not each other.)