How to create a sovereign Kosovo

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In the face of an election defeat last month, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears all but ready to give way to his opposition successor. No matter what happens next in Belgrade, however, it is clear that the vote for the opposition was a necessary first step in giving power back to the people of Yugoslavia and restoring their hope for a better future.

The same kind of ballot-driven catalyst for change is needed in Kosovo, where the people can't govern for themselves because the international community governs for them. This presents a curious irony: While the UN is there to help, it's actively preventing self-determination by Kosovars.

The key to new thinking on Kosovo that could lead to a long-term solution rests in application of modern concepts of human rights and state sovereignty. These concepts were played out at the United Nations Millennium Summit in September, where the fact that state sovereignty is no longer absolute was repeatedly acknowledged. World leaders heard in speech after speech that preventing war and fostering the conditions for peace means addressing the root causes of conflict wherever they occur. What happens inside states, including economic deprivation and human rights violations, the summit found, is of concern to the entire international community.

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This developing international consensus on limited state sovereignty has broad implications for all parts of the world. For those struggling to find a solution to the ongoing Kosovo crisis, it is crucial.

Some legal commentators have thought about sovereignty in the context of military intervention. The argument here is that the NATO military intervention in Kosovo was justified by the gross and systemic human rights violations there. Ever since the days of the Nuremberg trials, states have been unable to justify gross mistreatment of their own citizens in the name of state sovereignty. States that do so in violation of international standards waive their claim to sovereignty and open the door to international corrective measures.

The same thinking about state sovereignty applied to the intervention question can be applied to interpretation of the Kosovo peace agreement. To date, however, this has not been done.

Any discussion on Kosovo these days is hampered by a fundamental misreading of UN Security Council Resolution 1244, the document which provides authority for the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). Commentators read this document as resolving the future status of Kosovo in Serbia's favor. They claim that either reconstruction efforts must proceed with Kosovo forever being part of Yugoslavia, or the UN resolution must be changed. This is wrong. Options in Kosovo need not be limited to these two scenarios.

Resolution 1244 does confirm the commitment of UN member states "to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." But the use of the words "sovereignty" and "territorial integrity" does not automatically resolve the status of Kosovo in Serbia's favor.

On the contrary, these words invoke human rights principles that weigh not on the side of any particular group, but in favor of respect for international human rights standards for all.

The concepts of "sovereignty" and "territorial integrity" incor- porate the international standards discussed at the Millennium Summit. Thus, the concept of "territorial integrity" means more than just passive border maintenance. It requires states to actively maintain the integrity of their territory through the observance of international human rights standards.

Similarly, the concept of "sovereignty" points to the prerogative of states to act, but only insofar as the state is in line with international standards. The notion of "sovereignty" today also incorporates the right to popular sovereignty. States must respect sovereign rights of the people to participate in society and choose how they should be governed and by whom.

For more than 10 years, the government of Yugoslavia has violated the integrity of its own territory and the sovereignty of the people through orchestrated oppression against Albanians, Croats, Muslims, independent journalists, and opposition politicians. The task for UNMIK should be to help the people of the region claim their sovereignty and restore the integrity of their territory by promoting the human rights of all citizens.

The international mission must permit the people to decide their future for themselves. Instead of acting as a colonial-style administrator and imposing its own will, UNMIK should empower locals to discover their own solutions. Whether that future is partition or independence, the role of the international mission is to provide security in the short term and aid the development of participatory, self-governing, human-rights-abiding institutions for the long term.

So far, UNMIK has been afraid to support any local efforts that would upset the status quo. But the status quo is unacceptable to all parties, and it cannot endure over the long term. A status-quo solution imposed by an outside force against the will of locals violates the principle of sovereignty that the UN is working to uphold.

By denying Kosovars the right to decide their own fate, UNMIK is violating the principle of sovereignty, not promoting it. The lessons on limited state sovereignty, which were heard loud and clear at the Millennium Summit, should be applied to Kosovo.

-- Julie Mertus, a professor of peace and conflict resolution at American University, is the author of 'Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War' (University of California Press, 1999).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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