August 14, 2022

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The Legal System

Putin, Ukraine And International Law

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Since Putin invaded Ukraine, several stakeholders have used international law to bolster their positions in the war of words. Many legal practitioners and diplomats have argued that international law has no teeth because the global community does not have an organized police force to enforce it. This begs the obvious question: if it is so weak, why has it been invoked by the myriad stakeholders during the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine? The following article asks and answers several questions related to enforcement of law to shed light on this issue.

What are some examples of how relevant experts using international law to reinforce their respective positions?

  • On February 24, 2022, President Putin invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify his invasion of Ukraine. Article 51 authorizes sovereign states to use force to defend itself when an armed attack occurs against a member of the United Nations. .
  • On March 5, 2024, Ukraine files a petition to the International Court of Justice (The UN’s highest court) asking the court to issue an injunction demanding that Russia end its violent incursion in the country.
  • On April 3, President Zelensky and the mayor of Bucha, a city that was attacked by Russian forces, invoke international law by asserting that the recent violent deaths of hundreds of Ukrainians rise to the level of war crimes and genocide.

What is law enforcement?

The dictionary definition of law enforcement is, “government who act in an organized manner to enforce the law by discovering, deterring, rehabilitating, or punishing people who violate the rules and norms governing that society.” The foundation of this concept is that people in a given country are more likely to follow the state’s law if there are significant consequences for not complying.

Can International law be enforced/ Why do people think that it cannot be enforced?

People think that international law cannot be enforced because there is no international police force. While having an organized law enforcement mechanism makes it easier to enforce domestic law, international law can be enforced from time to time. However, these scenarios (domestic enforcement of an international treaty or financial sanctions from the UN) are not relevant to this dispute.

Why is international law playing a prominent role in the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia?

This war is not fought exclusively in the alleyways, buildings, and concrete corridors of Ukraine. As the missiles are launched from the Black Sea, Putin and Zelensky curry the support of third party countries by waging a war or words that aims to connect their plight with the moral high ground. International laws are the birth child of global moral norms. In the war of words, those who comply with international law have the more righteous and honorable positions.

International law inspires government decisions that deter

On a geopolitical level, Putin invokes Article 51 in an effort to justify his invasion to the global community. For legal scholars, international law provides a more level playing field in which he can participate and demonstrate that Putin does not have the moral high ground. For Ukraine, filing suit with the ICJ aims to provides authoritative judicial condemnation of Putin legal argument and objective rationale for justifying the financial and military support of third party countries.

The governments who demonstrate that international and moral law is on their side are more likely to garner support from the global community. So far, Ukraine has received significantly more support than Russia from the global community, which is a consequence of losing the battle for legitimacy under international law. While it is a more indirect enforcement of international morals and norms, it is still a form of enforcement that factors into the decisions of relevant stakeholders. History demonstrates that international law does have teeth, but time will tell if it is going to bite.

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