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After Kosovo

Legal issues of Autonomy and Secession in the Commonwealth of Independent States

As the example of Kosovo shows, a people’s quest for self-determination and the parent state’s claim for territorial integrity might get into conflict and even result in war and bloodshed. Does Public International Law provide a solution for these conflicting interests? This topic was discussed by international experts at a conference organised by the Institute of International Law on 16 and 17 February 2012 at the LMU.

Four case studies on Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnestria provided a starting point for the legal analysis. Those regions, located in former Soviet Union Socialist Republics, claim independence from Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova, respectively, and may be regarded as de-facto regimes, a status partly gained by military force and the support of neighbouring powers, i.e. Russia and Armenia.

How does Public International Law stand on secession and autonomy? This was the general question underlying the conference. Most participants agreed that the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on the declaration of independence of Kosovo left many questions open, which – whether it was deplored as a missed opportunity or applauded as wise judicial minimalism – gave ample room for scholarly debate: According to the traditional view, upheld by many speakers, Public International Law prohibits secession and favours territorial sovereignty and established borders (uti possidetis) over claims for independence. Other participants cautiously approached the idea of a right to ‘remedial secession’ as a last resort after egregious human rights violations and disrespect of a people’s right to self determination.

More specifically, the conference looked at the rights of peoples, minorities and indigenous peoples, at the role of recognition or non-recognitions with regard to secession and at the law of use of force in this context. In the concluding part, the general findings were discussed with respect to three further unresolved conflicts, i.e. Kosovo, Western Sahara, and Eritrea.

Antje v. Ungern-Sternberg