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. 

Hilary Charlesworth elected to International Court of Justice

Delighted to report that the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council today elected Hilary Charlesworth to the International Court of Justice, to fill the seat prematurely vacated due to the untimely death of James Crawford (see previous IntLawGrrls post here). The appointment, which takes immediate effect, brings to four the number of women sitting on the 15-judge court.

>> Heartfelt congratulations, Hilary! <<

Hilary Charlesworth nominated to International Court of Justice

Delighted to see that Australia has nominated Hilary Charlesworth for election to the International Court of Justice.  The election will take place on November 5, 2021, for the seat that opened upon the untimely passing in May 2021 of James Crawford, whose term was to end in 2024.

Hilary Charlesworth, the Harrison Moore Chair in Law and Laureate Professor at Melbourne Law School and a Distinguished Professor at Australian National University, served on the ICJ as judge ad hoc for Australia in Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v. Japan) (2011-2014), and is currently serving as judge ad hoc for Guyana in Arbitral Award of 3 October 1899 (Guyana v. Venezuela)

Photo from the ILG2 post, Women of the ICJ: Judge Xue Hanqin (China), Judge ad hoc Hilary Charlesworth (Australia), Judge Joan E. Donoghue (USA) and Judge Julia Sebutinde (Uganda), next to a portrait of Judge Rosalyn Higgins (Great Britain), the first woman to serve on the ICJ.

Hilary has twice been recognized for her accomplishments by the American Society of International Law, receiving the award for “preeminent contribution to creative scholarship” with Christine Chinkin for the book they co-authored, The Boundaries of International Law: A Feminist Analysis, as well as the Goler Teal Butcher Award, together with Prof. Chinkin, “for outstanding contributions to the development or effective realization of international human rights law.” In 2021 she received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the International Studies Association, and was previously awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Hilary Charlesworth has been a member of the Executive Council of both the Asian Society of International Law and the American Society of International Law, and served as President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law. She has been a visiting professor at a number of institutions including Harvard, Columbia, New York University, Michigan, UCLA, Paris I and the London School of Economics, and has delivered the General Course in Public International Law at the Hague Academy. 

Hilary is also a fellow IntLawGrrl (her ILG profile here).  In 2012 she and her co-authors Christine Chinkin and Shelley Wright shared their reflections as they looked back on their pathbreaking article, “Feminist Approaches to International Law,” 85 American Journal of International Law 613-645 (October 1991). Their post capped a fascinating month-long IntLawGrrls series on the work.

Heartfelt congratulations on the nomination, Hilary!

Tempest over a Temple 2

The International Court of Justice recently issued a final judgment in The Case Concerning The Temple Of Preah Vihear, Request For Interpretation Of The Judgment Of 15 June 1962 (Cambodia v. Thailand) (the full case docket is here).  The judgment confirms (again) that the contested temple is on the territory of Cambodia, although leaves open the question of the territory around the temple.  Newspapers initially reported that both countries were satisfied with the ruling; now, it seems that Thailand wants to “negotiate further on the issue with Cambodia.”

Although not of the global importance as the situation in Syria or Iran, this case can be counted as a provisional win for the ICJ and for the processes of international dispute resolution.  As we’ve discussed in the past (here) the origins of the dispute can be traced to Thai domestic politics more than anything else.  The ICJ offered a neutral forum where the parties could outsource the dispute, give everyone involved some breathing room, and allow for the political situation in Thailand to normalize.  It remains to be seen whether nationalist forces within Thailand will accept the ruling, or insist that the government repudiate it.

Round 1 at the International Court of Justice

By way of background, the ICJ first took up the case upon a 1959 application by Cambodia after Thai forces occupied the temple area in 1954.  In that earlier opinion, issued in June 1962, the Court had declared that

the Temple of Preah Vihear is situated in territory under the sovereignty of Cambodia

notwithstanding that the temple, being on an escarpment, is geographically more accessible from Thailand and on the Thai side of a natural watershed that otherwise demarcates the border between the two countries.  Interestingly, the Court did not consider Cambodia’s cultural claims to the 11th century temple, which was built by the same Khmer royalty who are responsible for the spectacular Angkor Wat temple complexes.

The ruling was premised in part on interpretations of French maps, drawn up in 1907 by the Franco-Siamese Mixed Commission, which placed the territory in Cambodia.  Thailand had helped generate these maps, and subsequently used them for its own purposes until its 1954 occupation of the area.  Because Thailand had originally relied on the 1907 maps, suggesting an acceptance of their contents, international lawyers normally cite the ICJ’s 1962 judgment for the principle of estoppel, which the court identified as a general principle of law as contemplated by Article 38(1)(c) of its statute.

UNESCO Enters the Fray

Preah Vihear TempleThailand withdrew from the temple complex following the 1962 judgment.  Cambodia generally enjoyed uncontested sovereignty over the temple until recently.  In 2007, Cambodia successfully requested that UNESCO list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage Site, one of two in Cambodia.  The map Cambodia provided to UNESCO included part of the promontory on the Cambodian side of the border.  Nationalist political parties in Thailand protested the move, leading to Thailand’s withdrawal from both the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the World Heritage Committee.  These protests were part of the unrest that led to the 2008 Thai political crisis.  At the same time, Thai and Cambodian forces clashed along the borders, displacing thousands of civilians and requiring the temple to be closed to tourism.  In February 2011, Cambodia brought the conflict to the attention of the U.N. Security Council, which called for a permanent ceasefire to be established between the two parties and expressed its support for the efforts of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to find a solution.

Round 2 at the International Court of Justice

In April 2011, Cambodia requested that the ICJ, pursuant to Article 60 of its statute, interpret its original 1962 judgment.  Thailand advanced the argument that the original ICJ opinion related only to the temple itself (and the immediate vicinity), and not to the entire area surrounding it, where the recent clashes have occurred. Similarly, it argued that the Court did not delineate the entire frontier between the countries, which remains contested.  Cambodia countered that by determining that the temple falls within Cambodian sovereign territory, the ICJ by implication had determined the border between the two countries, at least with regard to the temple vicinity. Thai incursions, it contended, thus are akin to violations of Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. On the strength of the original ICJ opinion, Cambodia has argued that Thailand remains under a continuing and general duty – rather than a mere instantaneous duty applicable only in 1962 – to withdraw its troops from the area and to respect the integrity of Cambodian territory.

On July 18, 2011, the International Court of Justice ordered provisional measures in the Request for interpretation of the Judgment of 15 June 1962 in the case concerning the Temple of Preah Vihear (Cambodia v. Thailand).  Made pursuant to Article 41 of the ICJ Statute, provisional measures are akin to the issuance of a preliminary injunction in U.S. litigation practice.  The measures were premised on findings that:

  • the rights asserted by Cambodia were at least plausible;
  • the rights from which the request for provisional measures derive from the earlier judgment;
  • a link exists between the alleged rights and the provisional measures sought; and
  • irreparable prejudice could be caused to those rights.

Thus the ICJ ordered, inter alia, that

all armed forces should be provisionally excluded from a zone around the area of the Temple, without prejudice to the judgment which the Court will render on the request for interpretation submitted by Cambodia.

The Court then defined this zone with reference to particular coordinates. In addition, the parties were ordered to continue to cooperate with ASEAN and to allow observers to have access to the provisional demilitarized zone.

Round 3 at the International Court of Justice

The Court unanimously ruled this week on the merits of the dispute.  In keeping with its earlier provision measures, the Court held that the 1962 judgment only addressed a dispute regarding territorial sovereignty over the temple and area on which it is located; it was not delimiting the entire frontier or assigning sovereignty over the entire escarpment or nearby geographic features.  Nor did it indicate where Thai troops should withdraw to; rather, it simply indicated that they should withdraw from the temple area.

It remains to be seen whether nationalist forces within Thailand will accept the ruling, or insist that the government repudiate it.  There are apparently plans afoot to jointly develop the area.  Having been to Cambodia dozens of time, I still have yet to see this architectural and historical marvel, which has been generally off limits to tourists.  Let’s hope these moderate impulses prevail…