Kyiv, March 21, 2014. Today the Russian State Duma approved the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and Sevastopol, completing the official part of the military occupation of the region. While most of the civilized world (including the EU, the U.S. and Japan) condemned the staged “referendum”, which was held at gunpoint, and imposed sanctions on Russia, the UN Security Council failed to adopt a resolution invalidating the vote. Russia, a permanent member of the Council, vetoed the resolution. And even if it hadn’t, some experts believe the UN “has no teeth” to enforce the resolution.
“The issue is not the vote in Crimea,” said Sean Murphy, a member of the UN International Law Commission, as cited by pri.org. “It’s how the vote came about,” he stated. The referendum in Crimea was organized in three weeks while Russian military de facto occupied the peninsula, seized the Crimean parliament and forced the appointment of a separatist Prime Minister with ties to organized crime.
Murphy explained that in 1945, the UN Charter was adopted with a fundamental rule forbidding the trans-border use of force. Article 2(4) of the Charter says that no state may use force or threaten to use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other UN member state. And Russia, by breaching the UN Charter while holding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, set a very dangerous precedent. Russia’s actions in Crimea have compromised the authority and legitimacy of the UN and called into question the very existence of the intergovernmental organization. Notably, Russian officials, who are elated about the annexation, have already announced that they are also concerned about the rights of ethnic Russians in Estonia (a similar pretense used by the Kremlin for justifying Crimea’s occupation).
“It’s the first time we’ve had a European nation essentially… take steps that have brought about the transfer, the purported transfer — wholesale — of territory from one country to another…. This is not a world we want to live in,” concludes Murphy, an experienced international lawyer who now teaches at George Washington University, as reported by pri.org. President Putin seems to have created a new reality today, and a new world order, claim experts.
The Ukrainian International Law Association also reported that the Russian Federation committed an act of aggression against Ukraine, occupied the territory of Ukraine in Crimea, and grossly violated the basic principles of international law enshrined in the UN Charter and other universal, regional and local norms of international law.
Despite the fact that there have not been any active battles so far, the RF’s military occupation of part of Ukraine’s territory could eventually lead to an international armed conflict and the application of a whole corpus of international humanitarian law to the situation. The Fourth Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949, obligates the Occupying Power to comply with all international obligations to protect civilians on the occupied territory, and in this case makes the Russian Federation responsible for violations of international commitments on human rights on the occupied territories, reads the statement.
Ukrainian authorities intend to challenge the illegal annexation in international courts, while the structure of the major global peacekeeper – the UN Security Council – makes the organization impotent in resolving the Russia-Ukraine crisis. At the same time, Ukrainian lawyers argue that Russia’s right to act as the sole legal successor of the USSR in the context of succession of the rights and obligations of the USSR as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is highly questionable. They claim that countries which signed the relevant agreement in 1992 (including Ukraine and Georgia), have a right to raise the question of its suspension.
In the current situation, which many see as a pretext to the third world war, it may not be enough to hope that the UN will do more to stop Putin and avoid a global catastrophe than the League of Nations did in 1939 to stop Hitler and prevent WWII. Therefore, some experts believe that if legal measures to change the structure of the UN Security Council are not taken, the UN’s ineffectiveness may lead to its eventual demise, much the same way it did for its predecessor, the League of Nations. To prevent this from happening, new and more effective intergovernmental tools should be employed. Failure to do so could result in the UN not being able to prevent another world war.