United Nations authority: after Kosovo

The ability of the United Nations to play a leading role in the emerging era of multilateral diplomacy is compromised by the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, says James Ker-Lindsay.
James Ker-Lindsay
23 October 2009

A number of recent developments at the United Nations have been welcomed as significant reassertions of the importance of multilateral diplomacy. Barack Obama's speech at the general assembly on 23 September 2009, followed a day later by the UN Security Council's unanimous resolution in favour of nuclear disarmament, are but two events that highlight the central role the UN can play in providing a means for states to work with one another.

James Ker-Lindsay is senior research fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE). His books include Kosovo: The Path to Contested Statehood in the Balkans (IB Tauris, 2009) and EU Accession and UN Peacemaking in Cyprus (Palgrave, 2005)

Also by James Ker-Lindsay in openDemocracy:

"Cyprus: walk, don't run" (22 February 2009) There is a real danger, however, that such moves have come too late. For the UN's multilateral potential has already suffered great damage - and not always at the hands of the usual suspects (such as Iran or North Korea). Indeed, it is arguable that the single most significant challenge to the organisation's authority in recent times has been led by the western members of the Security Council: Britain, France and the United States. In particular, their decision to recognise Kosovo, following its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008, marked a major - perhaps irreparable - break with the established rules of UN politics.

Such a statement may seem unduly harsh, if not a gross exaggeration. After all, climate change, nuclear proliferation and the conflicts in the middle east and Afghanistan would all rank as more serious threats to human peace and security than a relatively insignificant issue in the western Balkans. But the argument here is not about the magnitude of the threat but the erosion of UN authority. And if the UN is considered as the supreme forum for international cooperation of matters of peace and security, the handling of Kosovo has dealt a great blow to the UN's authority. Even the invasion of Iraq does not compare, for in that case the decision was at least based on a particular reading of a UN Security Council resolution. In the case of Kosovo, by contrast, the problem was that action was taken to bypass the Security Council altogether.

The process

The UN Security Council authorised the start of future-status talks between the Serbian government and the Kosovo Albanian leadership in autumn 2005; it appointed Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, to lead the talks. Ahtisaari decided that there was no alternative to independence - an option bitterly opposed by Serbia - and thus set to work drafting a proposal to this end.

Also in openDemocracy on Kosovo and the region:

Julie Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Paul Hockenos, "Kosovo's contested future" (16 November 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

Mary Kaldor, "The Balkans-Caucasus tangle: states and citizens" (9 January 2008)

John O'Brennan, "Kosovo: the hour of Europe" (14 January 2008)

Timothy William Waters, "Kosovo: the day after" (18 February 2008)

Robert Elsie, "Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity" (25 February 2008)Florian Bieber, "Kosovo: one year on" (17 February 2009) This approach was troubling on two counts. First, in making no effort to reach a solution acceptable to both sides, it broke with established principles of conflict-resolution. Instead, one side was given everything it wanted, and the other side told that it should accept it. Many officials defended this decision by arguing that there was no other option, because the wars of the 1990s in the region had made reconciliation impossible. This is a weak argument. The same line of reasoning, after all, is not applied to other groups around the world who have suffered persecution at the hands of a larger or more powerful ethnic group (the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Kurds of Turkey or Iraq, for example); and the claim that Kosovo's position in Yugoslavia supported its right to statehood alongside the six republics (Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) does not hold up.

Second, the decision to propose independence marked an important departure from international practice on the creation of new states. Ahtisaari, by proposing statehood against Belgrade's wishes, undermined the principle enshrined in the UN charter of the territorial integrity of states. This prompted Russia's then representative at the UN, Vitaly Churkin, to suggest that it was the most important issue to come before the organisation in the past decade. In response, many would see another right embodied in the UN charter - that of self-determination - as supporting Kosovo's independence. But this is not the position of western officials, who have instead consistently argued that the case for independence is rooted in unique factors arising from the collapse of Yugoslavia - something that many other groups around the world could equally claim.

The rules

The Russian government, influenced by these considerations (as well as other, perhaps less honourable, intentions) decided to block a resolution implementing Martti Ahtisaari's proposals when they were brought before the UN Security Council. Moscow held fast to its position against numerous pressures and inducements (including the offer of a further series of talks). In the end, the three western members of the Security Council - after Russia's veto of the Ahtisaari proposals in the UNSC, and amid a deteriorating situation in Kosovo itself - decided that there was no alternative but to let Kosovo go its own way without UN approval.

The serious problem is that, in the context of a debate on UN authority, this argument has no validity. The permanent members' right to block decisions in the Security Council, whatever problems this may cause to the decision-making process, is also enshrined within the UN charter - and thus a fundamental cornerstone of international law. It cannot merely be ignored. Britain, France and the United States all expect their decisions to veto resolutions to be respected and accepted; even if it is deeply unpopular and isolates them in the council. If the sanctity of the UN system is to be preserved, the same principle must apply to all. 

True, it is inherently troubling and uncomfortable to see powerful states such as Russia blocking UNSC decisions on grounds of selfish national interest or Realpolitik. But Moscow has the same legal right as the other permanent members to express a view and cast a veto; and the UN's integrity cannot be retained if the will of one permanent member is simply ignored. The UN system desperately needs reform, but until this is achieved the rules it operates under should be observed.

The repair 

The decision of three permanent members of the Security Council to recognise Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence without an explicit council resolution was understandable in terms of the regional situation in the Balkans, and may have been done with the best of intentions. It has also severely undermined the UN and opened the way for others to follow suit. It was all too apparent that Russia was able to use the decision of Britain, France and the United States in justification for its own recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008. If the western members can choose when to ignore the Security Council and the principles of international law when it suits them, so too can Russia - and China.

Indeed, in an era when the balance of power is shifting in international affairs and new leaders are emerging on the world stage, it is ever more important to ensure that the rule of law and the principles established over sixty years are bolstered rather than weakened.

The evidence of renewed commitment to the strengthening of the United Nations as a global actor, including from the Barack Obama administration, is welcome. The question is whether it is too late to repair the damage that has already been done - and if not, how to do it?

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