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From Kosovo to Crimea and Beyond: On Territorial Integrity, Unilateral Secession and Legal Neutrality in International Law

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In the aftermath of the Ukrainian Revolution, Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea declared independence and filed an application to subsequently join the Russian Federation. In seeking to justify these acts, both the Crimean authorities and the Russian Federation referred to international law, including the International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. In this Advisory Opinion, the Court indeed found that the principle of territorial integrity merely applies in the relationship between States and concluded that general international law does not contain a prohibition on unilateral declarations of independence. These findings and the interpretation of the Advisory Opinion as put forward by the Crimean and Russian authorities, however, raise pertinent questions. This article therefore aims to shed light on the scope of the principle of territorial integrity of States and its implications for the legality of and perceived legal neutrality concerning unilateral secession under international law.

Affiliations: 1: Assistant Professor, Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands,


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