Back on March 4, American President Barack Obama talked about the crisis in Crimea:
“There is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law. I know President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations, but I don’t think that’s fooling anybody.”
On the basis of Obama’s words, one can assume international law to be nothing beyond a set of beliefs that are classified as acceptable or unacceptable, depending on which side of the spectrum one chooses to stand.
As a result, when Crimean voters decided to secede from Ukraine and unite with Russia, what role did international law play in the picture? Again, you cannot properly define something that is viewed as more a matter of ‘strong belief’ than that of ‘codified norms’, but the verdicts and opinions of the International Court of Justice are well worth discussing here.
The Examples of Kosovo and Northern Cyprus
Kosovo had unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. Two years later, in 2010, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated that unilateral declarations of independence were not prohibited under international law and as a result, Kosovo had every right to declare its independence.
However, citing the example of Northern Cyprus, the ICJ further added that such unilateral claims of sovereignty should not, by any means, be accompanied by unlawful use of force and/or violation of peace pacts. Therefore, the ICJ did not appreciate the Turkish Cypriots’ unilateral declaration of independence.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was formed in 1983 after Turkey’s armed intervention in Cyprus. Turkey justified its military actions by claiming that Turkish Cypriots were basically helpless against the then biased regime of erstwhile undivided Cyprus and thus, defensive intervention was the only option left. Yet, the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice did not approve of Turkey’s actions.
In fact, Turkey’s claim that it acted in self-defence was pretty much in assonance with international law. On paper, the ICJ allows the use of force and military action in two cases:
1. Self-defence (as per Article 51 of the United Nations Charter),
2. In matters where the use of force is authorized by the United Nations Security Council.
Since the UNSC has not yet approved of Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, the only justification that Russia can cite for its actions is self-defence.
The Case of Crimea
Russia has already stated that its intervention in the Ukraine crisis is well justified on grounds of self-defence. Much like Turkey’s concern for Turkish Cypriots, Russian attraction towards Russian-speaking Crimean populace is more a matter of defence of a country’s nationals residing abroad and can, as such, be included within the radius of self-defence.
However, there is another side to the story. Turkey was left stranded and without international support after its intervention in Cyprus ― but Russia is not Turkey.
Unlike the Turks, Russians do have a permanent seat in the UNSC and are blessed with the power of veto. In fact, Russia did recently exercise its veto power to block a draft resolution in the Security Council (the said resolution intended to condemn the referendum in Crimea).
The outcome? Even if Russia does not justify its actions as steps taken in self-defence, there is not much the UNSC can do to stop it. As a result, even though ICJ’s definitions of acceptable unilateral declarations do not entirely hold true in case of Crimea, the results of the referendum shall be binding upon all. Love it or hate it, Crimea will soon be a part of Russia.
More importantly, out of all the organs of UNO, the UNSC is the only body that can pass verdicts with legal merit. Since Russia is an integral part of the UNSC, expecting the Security Council to strongly stand in favor of Ukraine will be naive.
Quite obviously, owing to Russia’s diplomatic and strategic edge, US President Barack Obama had no choice but to use meek words and talk about ‘belief’ while criticizing the actions of Vladimir Putin. In fact, Obama’s words, to a great extent, sounded like an emotional outburst.
The deadlock in the Security Council, the rapid-paced geopolitical developments, and Russia’s disregard for Western approval has left USA and its allies in a state of dismay.
Once again, Russia’s swift military intervention and the Crimean referendum have shown that international law has its own share of hollow patches. At the end of the day, international law receives full compliance from the Meek, half-hearted acceptance from the Mediocre, and zero respect from the Mighty. For the sake of humanity, let us hope that the people of Crimea have chosen wisely, even though the rest of the world is nothing more than a mute spectator.