Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and its intervention on that country’s internal affairs constitute a serious breach of international law. According to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, “War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court states that the crime of aggression is one of the “most serious crimes of concern to the international community,” and provides that the crime falls within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As of November 2019, 123 states are parties to the Statute of the Court. Four of these signature states –the United States, Russia, Israel and Sudan—have informed the UN Secretary General that they no longer intend to abide by the laws of the Statute, and therefore have no legal obligations arising from their signature.
Current Russian military actions in Ukraine are clear violations of the Geneva Convention of 1949, particularly its attacks against civilians who are not participating in hostilities. The Russian army has blockaded thousands of Ukrainian civilians in the basements on churches, theaters, and subway stations in conditions of near starvation. The 1949 Geneva Conventions have been ratified by all Member States of the United Nations, which are then bound by its tenets.
In 1965, the UN General Assembly issued a Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Domestic Affairs of States (UNGA resolution 2131). According to that declaration, “no state has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state…and no state shall organize, assist, foment, finance, incite or tolerate subversive, terrorist or armed activities directed toward the violent overthrow of another state, or interfere in civil strife in another state.” Even before launching its armed aggression, Russia had conducted a campaign of cyberattacks against critical Ukrainian infrastructures.
The UN General Assembly resolutions, however, are considered recommendations and are not, therefore, legally binding. The principle of non-intervention was alleged in the case of Nicaragua vs. United States, following the U.S. support for the “contras” fighting the Nicaraguan government and the mining of Nicaraguan harbors.
The case was decided in 1986 by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ ruled in favor of Nicaragua and against the United States, and awarded reparations to the Nicaraguan government. According to the ICJ, the actions of the U.S. against Nicaragua violated international law. The U.S. resisted participating in the proceedings after the Court rejected its argument that the ICJ lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
Related to the principle of intervention is the right to carry out preventive war against another country perceived to be a threat. Although that principle was argued, unsuccessfully, by the Bush administration war against Iraq, it doesn’t stand either in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.
If any party should have felt threatened it would be Ukraine, given the massive deployment of military equipment by the Russian government on the border area with Ukraine before launching its fateful attack. In addition, Putin had at his disposal other means to show his anger at the expansion of NATO. He didn’t need to initiate a war that has already caused thousands of deaths and the forced displacement of millions of civilians.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has accused the United Nations of being ineffective because of its failure to protect Ukraine from Russian attack. However, the U.N. is as strong and effective as its member states want it to be. The UN Security Council’s needs urgently to be revisited, incorporating new members and reconsidering the conditions of the veto power of present members.
International laws regarding the use of force and non-intervention against another country have been repeatedly breached in recent times. The serious consequences of the armed interventions against Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Yemen and now Ukraine indicate the need to honor those laws.
A new international security framework needs to be created whereby every country will feel secure that it won’t be invaded at the whim and unilateral decision of more powerful countries. Until the perpetrators of these violations accept such a framework, brutal force will continue to be used and the sovereignty of nations will continue to be violated.