[Sina Etezazian is a PhD candidate at Monash Law School, researching the prerequisites for the exercise of self-defense in international law.]
Although Russia has now distanced itself from the doctrine of the forcible protection of nationals abroad, and instead has opted to rely on “intervention by invitation” as the main basis of its deployment of force in Crimea, the rescue of nationals at risk overseas was its original premise for military action against Ukraine. It is therefore worth clarifying whether Russia was legally permitted to deploy force in Crimea to protect Russian ethnics or Russian citizens whose lives, Russia argued, were threatened by Ukrainian forces.
Even if the contemporary international law governing the defensive actions of states extends to the protection of nationals abroad, Russia’s deployment of force in Crimea appears to fall short of meeting the conditions of permissible self-defense. However, while the Russian intervention has constituted an act of aggression, not self-defense, I can see no possible legal justification under the present circumstances for resort to (individual or collective) self-defense against Russia.
An examination of state practice since 1945 reveals that only a limited number of states – such as Israel, Russia, the UK and the US – have invoked self-defense to use force with the alleged aim of protecting their nationals threatened extraterritorially. Furthermore, the rescue of citizens abroad often seems to be a manifestation of aggressive political ambitions rather than a genuine exercise of the right of self-defense. The United States, for example, in its interventions in the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), used the justification that it had acted in self-defense to protect its citizens allegedly at risk in those states. However, US actionsin all the above instances received harsh criticism from the community of states, partly because the actions were disproportionate self-defense (The Yearbook of the United Nations (1965) 142; UN SCOR, 2491st mtg, UN Docs S/PV. 2491(27 October 1983) 5, paragraphs 38-9; Louis Henkin, “The Invasion of Panama Under International Law: A Gross Violation” (1991) 29 Columbia Journal of Transnational Law 293, 306, 308-9; Judith Gardam, Necessity, Proportionality and the Use of Force by States, 166-7), seeking to overthrow the governments of the states in which the US had intervened militarily (Christine Gray, International Law on the Use of Force (3rd ed, 2008) 88-92).
However, reacting to US interventions, states neither opposed nor supported the use of force for the protection of nationals abroad. Similarly, when Russia invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter to rescue Russian nationals allegedly threatened by Georgian forces in 2008, rather than challenge the doctrine in question, Western states disputed Russia’s motives behind its intervention in Georgia (Christine Gray, “The Use of Force and the International Legal Order” in: Malcom D Evans (ed), International Law, 615, 627), which was far from a proportionate use of force in terms of damage and loss of life inflicted.
The better view, thus, would seem to be that expressed by Tom Ruys in 2008 (page 35):
In conclusion, we have seen that, de lege lata, the long-standing controversy over the legality of forcible protection of nationals remains unresolved. The new element in state practice, namely the increased political tolerance vis-à-vis limited evacuation operations, is arguably counterbalanced by the negative opinio iuris reflected in the UNGA debates on diplomatic protection. Ergo, in the final analysis, United Nations practice is and remains inconclusive, implying that it is virtually impossible to deduce from customary practice to what extent attacks or possible attacks against nationals abroad may trigger the right to self-defence.
Hence, the legal basis for the coercive protection of nationals abroad in lawful self-defense appears to remain largely unclear. At best, the doctrine of protection of nationals abroad is very controversial
However, even if one assumes that the rescue of nationals at risk overseas falls within the scope of valid self-defense, it is very unlikely that Russia’s current deployment of force in Crimea falls within the limits of Article 51, as it may not satisfy the prerequisites of necessity and proportionality.
First, the “last-resort” criterion inherent in the principle of necessity dictates that self-defense is available to the victim state only when methods not involving force appear impracticable to settle the conflict. This view finds support in customary international law and in the jurisprudence of the International Law Commission (ILC) (para. 120):
The reason for stressing that action taken in self-defence must be necessary is that the State attacked (or threatened with imminent attack, if one admits preventive self-defence) must not, in the particular circumstances, have had any means of halting the attack other than recourse to armed force. In other words, had it been able to achieve the same result by measures not involving the use of armed force, it would have no justification for adopting conduct which contravened the general prohibition against the use of armed force. The point is self-evident and is generally recognized; hence it requires no further discussion.
In 2005, the Chatham House Principles on the Use of Force in Self-Defence, representing the work of a number of prominent commentators in the field, confirmed the ILC’s approach to the “last-resort” requirement in the following terms (pages 966-7):
Force may be used in self-defence only when this is necessary to bring an attack to an end, or to avert an imminent attack. There must be no practical alternative to the proposed use of force that is likely to be effective in ending or averting the attack.
In fact, when Russia chose to invoke the so-called right of the forcible protection of nationals abroad, diplomacy appeared practicable and effective in resolving the crisis; in other words, the “last resort” had not yet been reached.
Moreover, the force used in self-defense must satisfy the criterion of immediacy: unless there is an attack that can be proved imminent, the victim state may not be justified in resorting to self-defense. Even supposing that the use of force against nationals residing outside the victim state may be equated with an armed attack, there is no evidence that the lives of Russians in Crimea or other parts of Ukraine have been threatened with impending military force. It is therefore difficult to comprehend how Russia can validly engage in self-defense against Ukraine. It goes without saying that a response that fails to meet the demands of necessity is extremely unlikely to be considered proportionate defensive action.
The final point to consider is whether, in the given situation, Ukraine would have the right to act in individual or collective self-defense. The answer is no – despite the conclusion made by the Ukrainian Association of International Law that Russia’ military action in Crimea “provides legal grounds” for Ukraine exercising its right of individual or collective self-defense.
True, states’ reactions to the occupations of South Korea in 1950, the Falkland Islands in 1982 and Kuwait in 1990 leave no doubt that the commencement of occupation clearly amounts to the commencement of an armed attack. Furthermore, the 1974 Definition of Aggression and the Amendments to the ICC Statute have listed “the invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State, or any military occupation…resulting from such invasion or attack” as an act of “aggression”. Thus there is little doubt that Russia has committed “aggression“. All this might suggest thatUkraine has an entitlement to self-defense, as embedded in Article 51, and the customary international law accompanying it.
However, at least in these circumstances, Ukraine’s possible use of force against Russia runs into the same obstacle with respect to the last-resort criterion as the Russian deployment of force in Crimea: given that “Russian troops have not so far used lethal force“, there still appear to be some prospects for the peaceful settlement of the conflict, which are likely to be practicable in dissuading Russia from continuing with its act of aggression. The fact that, on 7 March 2014, President Barack Obama had “a lengthy telephone talk” with his Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, urging him to “seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine“, clearly illustrates this point.
Moreover, similar instances from the practice of states tend to support the proposition that, in cases akin to the occupation of Crimea, states have appeared more willing to pursue non-coercive measures in the first place. For example, in 1982, when the Falkland Islands, which belonged to the UK, were occupied by Argentine forces, the UK did not immediately decide to respond under the rubric of self-defense. Rather, British officials found force to be “necessary” only when it was made clear that peaceful means had been impracticable to resolve the problem– that is, when Argentina refused to abide by the relevant resolution of the UN Security Council demanding Argentina’s withdrawal from the Falkland Islands. Likewise, unless measures other than force are likely to be impracticable in rectifying the wrong created by Russian forces – that is, the occupation of Crimea – Ukraine (and its allies) may not lawfully resort to forceful measures against Russia within the confines of Article 51.