WASHINGTON -- The U.N.-appointed international mission in Kosovo, or KFOR, can resolve the future status of the war-torn region because diplomats are wrong when they claim that legal obstacles prevent a vote on independence or partition.
Nearly all commentators misinterpret U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, the document which provides authority for KFOR. They claim that this document resolves the future status of Kosovo in Serbia's favor. Read the language: It does nothing of the sort.
Resolution 1244 does confirm the commitment of the U.N. "to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia." And it does call for the "establishment of an interim political framework agreement providing for a substantial self-government for Kosovo" in line with "principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The use of the words "sovereignty" and "territorial integrity" does not mean Kosovo is automatically to remain part of Serbia. Rather than resolving the matter, these words invoke principles that must be considered for any final settlement. These principles weigh not on the side of any particular group, but in favor of respect of international human rights standards for all.
Modern conceptions of sovereignty and territorial integrity have moved from the time when, under the guise of sovereignty, the king could do whatever he pleased within his kingdom. All rulers, including Slobodan Milosevic, are limited by international standards. They must maintain the "integrity" of their territory through the observance of fundamental international human rights standards. Mr. Milosevic has forfeited that duty and has opened the door for corrective international intervention.
The concept of sovereignty today refers to the sovereign rights of the people to affect choices regarding how they should be governed and by whom. The policies of the Milosevic regime have violated the sovereignty of all of the people of existing Yugoslavia, Serbians and Albanians. There is no sovereignty where the Belgrade regime has for more than 10 years steadily orchestrated oppression against Albanians, Croats, Muslims, independent journalists and opposition politicians. Under these conditions, each and every election has been a sham. The will of the people has not been heard for a long time.
To the extent that members of the international community in Kosovo intervene to help people reclaim their sovereignty and promote the human rights of all, it liberates the principle of sovereignty. To the extent that they create a colonial government that denies the will of the people, it violates that principle.
KFOR is attempting to do the right thing. Yet, in denying the people of Kosovo the right to decide their own fate, KFOR is violating the principle of sovereignty, not promoting it. Resolution 1244 does not stand in the way of a final diplomatic and electoral decision on the future of Kosovo. Rather, the real obstacle is the timidity of the international community.
The international community fears it will set a bad precedent and encourage separatist and irredentist movements in the Balkans and elsewhere. This is not the case. Kosovo is an extreme situation where the only long-term solution to years of systematic human rights abuses and intense inter-group hatred is partition or complete independence.
If one lesson could be drawn from Kosovo it is that nonmilitary intervention in troubled states must occur with greater effort at an earlier date. For peace and security to ever be realized in the Balkans, the international community must go against its own well-intentioned plan for imposing multiculturalism on Kosovo. It must permit the people to decide their future for themselves. And if that future is partition or independence, KFOR's role is to provide security in the short term and aid the development of democratic, self-governing, human rights-abiding institutions for the long term.
Eventually, through whatever means necessary, the people of Kosovo will determine their own fate. KFOR can help it be peaceful, with respect for the rights of minorities, or it can continue to stick its head in the sand and pretend that nothing more can be done.
Julie Mertus, an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service, is the author of "Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War" (University of California Press, 1999).