In the cold light of the war in Ukraine, things look different. Also international law. A familiar mechanism with strong symbolism and high ambition, but not very often on the front page with great success. But the questions and emotions are not lost. Start an investigation, make a list, start collecting evidence, appoint a judge! Separate courts, existing international courts, can the state handle it individually? Lawyers, lawyers and other experts are now appearing everywhere with their analyzes of the Russia-Ukraine case.
I enjoyed reading it because it is a very civilized worldview that revolves around rules and standards, not power, possession, or domination. But you also know that it’s ‘for later’. Fire must be controlled first. Meanwhile, debris is starting to show, now the water is receding, as is the cliché. Defense spending is too low, the military is underpaid, the administrators are ‘naive’, the civilians are unprepared. And what about the ‘international legal order’? Can he punch a packet of butter?
In fact, the question is taboo, because international law is the only existing mechanism to stop, prevent or deal with barbarism. If war broke out, it had already failed. International law only works if everyone want to that it works. And therefore, by definition, a porcelain shop, is easily circumvented by not signing the x or y agreement, voting against it, vetoing it, not extraditing the defendants, etc. What you then leave behind are moral theatrical plays, like MH17- process, with open ends. International law is orphaned, because there is no international government. Superpowers sensed that perfectly. They consider their own right to be better and choose not to join, or just a la carte.
But if successful, international law is a monument to civilization. Then came the arrests, trials, pleas and convictions, followed by Mladic punishments. But you can never count on it. ‘Putin war criminal’ is then an expression of helplessness. Optimists say that if Navalny becomes president, Putin will go into hiding and the courts will be ready. When that happens, justice will prevail. But then it has to stay there.
Last week, the Russian Federation was expelled from the Council of Europe and also withdrew from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The end of an era, that’s how it feels. I grew up with the ECHR as Europe’s collective life insurance policy against World War III, which every citizen can rely on directly if their human rights are violated – in Strasbourg. A unique pressure valve in the rule of law. Likewise for every Russian, however futile and flawed the practice may be. Now Russia has only been a member since 1996 and has largely ignored the Strasbourg ruling. However, it is the only superpower it wants to be tested, at least in theory, against international legal standards. And now the fairy tale is (completely) over.
Is the ECHR now also a shipwreck that comes to the surface at low tide? Does it still have the power and prestige it once had? Can it take this hit? Russia isn’t the only country that doesn’t care. In the Netherlands, PVV and FVD have wanted it for a long time. There is a clear trend in Europe – not just in Poland and Hungary – to prioritize ‘own law’ over international law. Dislikes from Strasbourg were easily brushed aside, with England as repeat offenders. In retrospect, the fact that UK participation in the ECHR did not explode with Brexit can be called a miracle. Populism and nationalism undermine international law. International judgments are not carried out regularly. One ‘pandemic parochialism’, it is called, which is not limited to ECHR.
In short, if the world today has any hope of the ‘international legal order’, it must also comply with it itself. But to sign the treaty, to respect the verdict and to strengthen international law, is a good example. That’s really helpful, in case you later want to force it on someone else.
A version of this article also appears on NRC Handelsblad March 26, 2022
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of March 26, 2022
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