Russia v. Ukraine: The Limits of International Law

Several of my esteemed colleagues and experts have analyzed various international law issues related to the escalating Russia-Ukraine conflict (for example, see here and here and here).  The purpose of this post is not to reiterate some of such excellent analyses already published but rather to focus on the limitations of international law in this type of a conflict situation, implicating a Great Power such as Russia.

First, this conflict clearly implicates use of force issues in international law.  It is abundantly clear that Russia has violated Article 2(4) of the United Nations’ Charter when it used military force against the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine.  The international law prohibition on the use of force is also part of customary law and a jus cogens norm; international law is more than unequivocal that this type of behavior by Russia is a flagrant violation of one of international law’s fundamental norms.  Yet, despite this, international law remains limited in its ability to respond to Russian actions because of the fact that collective decision-making regarding authorizations to use force against a sovereign nation is tied to the Security Council, where Great Powers, such as Russia, have veto power.  Thus, although international law provides a clear answer about Russia’s violations of international legal norms, international law lacks appropriate legal mechanisms through which such violations can be adequately addressed.  Scholars have already written about possible limitations to the use of the veto power within the Security Council; such changes and perhaps broader reforms of the Council are desperately needed in situations as this one, where a veto-wielding member is in clear violation of the Charter’s fundamental norms.  For now, the international law system remains blocked when attempting to address violations by a Great Power, which happens to have veto powers within the Security Council. 

It is important to acknowledge that international law does leave open the possibility of a defensive use of force by Ukraine, through self-defense, and of collective self-defense, where Ukraine could request the assistance of another state in order to fend off Russian troops.  It is also important to note that NATO countries could decide to use force against Russia in order to defend Ukraine.  Precedent already exists for this type of use of force by NATO countries, to intervene militarily on the territory of a non-member state.  In fact, in 1999, NATO countries launched a series of air strikes against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in order to force then-President Slobodan Milosevic to halt committing abuses against Kosovar Albanians.  Yet, these potential uses of force remain unlikely and would not be equivalent to a United Nations Security Council-approved collective use of force against Russia.  Most states are unlikely to agree to use their military troops in Ukraine, under the paradigm of collective self-defense, as this would most certainly provoke an attack by Russia against those states and expose those states to serious military and political risks.  Moreover, a NATO-led use of force to defend a non-member state remains illegal under international law, so long as such use of force remains unauthorized by the Security Council.  Although many have defended the 1999 NATO air strikes against the FRY as legitimate or morally authorized, or on humanitarian grounds, these air strikes were illegal under international law.  It is unlikely, as of now, that NATO countries would be willing to launch a military operation, illegal under international law, against a Great Power like Russia.  Thus, the only plausible use of military force against Russia would be through a Security Council-authorized, collective military coalition, both legal under international law and more likely to succeed militarily against a mighty opponent as Russia.  Yet, as explained above, this is not going to happen because Russia has veto power within the Security Council. 

Second, this conflict also underscores the limitations of international law in terms of accountability.  In theory, political and military leaders who order the commission of atrocity crimes ought to be held accountable.  Article 8bis of the ICC Rome Statute defines an act of  aggression as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.”  In this instance, it is clear that Russia’s President Putin has committed an act of aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine.  Yet, although the ICC can exercise jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in situations involving non-state parties (if the crimes are committed by a national of a state party on the territory of a non-state party), the jurisdictional regime over the crime of aggression is significantly more limited.  In fact, the ICC can only exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in situations where both the victim and the aggressor state are members of the ICC; in this instance, because Russia is not a member, the court cannot exercise jurisdiction over the crime of aggression.  Thus, although it is certain that Putin has committed the act of aggression in Ukraine, it is almost equally certain that he will not face accountability at the ICC.  It is relevant to note here that the ICC can potentially exercise jurisdiction over the three other ICC crimes in Ukraine.  In fact, Ukraine accepted ICC jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed there by Russian forces starting in 2013.  The ICC Office of the Prosecutor launched a preliminary investigation into Ukraine and concluded that reasonable basis existed to conclude that crimes against humanity and war crimes were indeed committed in Ukraine.  Thus, the ICC could continue to investigate and possibly prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Ukraine. However, as the current ICC Prosecutor, Karim Khan has confirmed, the ICC remains unable to investigate and prosecute the most important crime committed by Putin against Ukraine, aggression.

Third, the conflict also highlights the limited efficacy of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).  The ICJ is the primary judicial organ of the United Nations and a forum where states can in theory settle their disputes. Because the court’s jurisdiction is voluntary, states must either agree to litigate in the ICJ on an ad hoc basis or through a treaty’s dispute resolution clause.  In this case, Ukraine has sued Russia in the ICJ, basing jurisdiction on the Genocide Convention, to which both states are parties.  However, although the ICJ has jurisdiction over this dispute, the court’s reach is limited to genocidal offenses only (because jurisdiction is based on the Genocide Convention), and, most importantly, the court has no enforcement mechanisms.  Thus, although the ICJ could order Russia to cease using military force in Ukraine, the court has no direct ways to enforce its own judgment.  It is very likely that a Great Power such as Russia would simply ignore the ICJ’s judgment.  Thus, the power of the ICJ to contribute to the actual resolution of this conflict remains limited.

In sum, international law contains clear legal norms which condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and which, on a theoretical level, impute state responsibility onto Russia and individual criminal responsibility on its leader, Vladimir Putin.  However, as this post discusses, international law remains limited in its ability to address the conflict.  Authorization for the use of force against Russia remains deadlocked in the veto-blocked Security Council; the crime of aggression’s restricted jurisdictional regime effectively shields Russian leaders from accountability at the ICC; the ICJ has no prospects of enforcing a judgment which would condemn Russia.  It may be argued that this relative inefficacy of international law is linked to the super-sovereign status of Great Powers, like Russia, which benefit from international law’s institutional design.  To illustrate this point, imagine a scenario where a non-super power, a state with an average size military and without a permanent seat on the Security Council, invaded a neighboring country.  In such a situation, the Security Council could act (assuming that this country was not directly allied with one of the Council’s five permanent members) and order collective force to be used against the aggressor state.  The country’s leaders could possibly face accountability in the ICC (there is a higher likelihood that a smaller, non-super power country would be a member of the ICC).  And a smaller, weaker state would be more likely to abide by an ICJ ruling.  International law, because of its general lack of enforcement mechanisms and because of its institutional design such as the veto power in the Security Council, contributes to an unequal order of states, where those with super-sovereign powers seem able to get away with breaches of fundamental norms with virtually no consequences. Russia, because of its status as a Great Power, has violated fundamental international law norms but may remain insulated from international law’s reach. 

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