The United States and Russia faced off over Kosovo at the United Nation's highest court on Tuesday, with the U.S. arguing the world should honor Kosovo's declaration of independence while Russia insisted it was still part of Serbia.
The Hague, Netherlands-based International Court of Justice, widely known as the World Court, has been asked to give its opinion on whether Kosovo's unilateral 2008 declaration of independence was legal.
The U.S. and Russia are two of 29 countries _ including all five permanent members of the UN Security Council _ weighing in on the matter before the court rules next year.
The case is being closely watched not only because the decision has the potential to upset the delicate peace in the former Yugoslavia but also because other countries with independence-minded provinces, like Russia, China and Spain, fear that Kosovo could set a precedent.
Representing the U.S., State Department lawyer Harold Koh said a declaration of independence is not something governed by international law but "fundamentally a political act ... which states then decide whether they should recognize or not."
"We therefore urge this court to leave Kosovo's declaration undisturbed by refusing to issue an opinion or by simply answering in the affirmative, that Kosovo's declaration is in accordance with international law," Koh told the 15-judge panel.
Outside the courtroom, Koh said that Kosovo's move was an expression of the reality on the ground and was justified, given historical abuses of the area's non-Serb population under Serb rule.
NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 to end a brutal crackdown by the forces of then-President Slobodan Milosevic against Kosovo's separatist ethnic Albanians. Some 10,000 ethnic Albanians were killed and close to a million were forced from their homes.
The area was then placed under UN administration while Kosovo was negotiating a semiautonomous status within Serbia. Those talks were unsuccessful, leading to the declaration of independence.
The United States and most European Union states have recognized Kosovo's independence. Serbia, backed by Russia and a majority of the other countries in the world, is against recognizing it.
Russian lawyer Kirill Gevorgian argued Tuesday that a Security Council resolution specifying Kosovo should negotiate a status within Serbia is still in effect.
"The final settlement ... is to be negotiated between the parties and endorsed by the Security Council," he said. "No unilateral action can be regarded as such a final settlement."
U.S. lawyer Koh warned the court against attempts to revive "futile" talks or to "unravel delicate political arrangements that have brought stability to a troubled region."
At the start of the hearings this month, Serbia said Kosovo's independence tore at the very fabric of Serb national identity.
Kosovo warned that if its declaration is deemed illegal it could lead to a renewal of violence in the region.
Hearings continue through Dec. 11.