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Europe

Roundtable at the NY City Bar on International Law and the Crisis in Ukraine

by Chris Borgen

For those in the New York City area who may be interested, tomorrow (June 4th) I will be participating in a roundtable discussion with Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Nations, concerning the crisis in Ukraine.   Mark Meyer, Moldova’s Honorary Consul in New York (and a member of the law firm Herzfeld & Rubin), will moderate the discussion.

The roundtable will take place at the New York City Bar on June 4th from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm, with a reception to follow. Full details are available here.

For some of my recent posts on this topic, please see: 1, 2, and 3.

Constructing the Eurasian Economic Union

by Chris Borgen

The New York Times reports that:

The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus formally signed an agreement on Thursday to create a limited economic union — an alliance hobbled by the absence of Ukraine but one long pursued by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to confirm his country as a global economic force.

“Today we are creating a powerful, attractive center of economic development, a big regional market that unites more than 170 million people,” Mr. Putin said during the ceremonies. He underscored the significant energy resources, work force and cultural heritage of the combined nations.

This treaty, which was signed this past week but is not expected to come into force until January 2015, marks the next step in transforming the still-nascent Eurasian Customs Union (ECU) into the Eurasian Union (EEU). Russian pressure for Ukraine to turn away from association with the European Union and towards Moscow-led Eurasian integration was one of the roots of the current crisis.

As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with China and the Central Asian states is Russia’s answer to U.S. military alliances, Eurasian economic integration is meant to be Russia’s response to EU and U.S. economic power.  According to a chronology in a report by the Centre for European Policy Studies, the creation of the EEU was first suggested by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 1994. There was not much movement until the negotiation and signing of a customs union treaty among Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan in 2007. The basic requirements of the Eurasian Customs Union came into force in 2010, which were essentially trade policy coordination measures establishing a common external tariff among its members. However, the deepening Eurasian economic integration was given a boost by an op-ed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in October 2011.

In early 2012, the member states deepened ECU’s institutions by starting the operations of the Eurasian Economic Commission, a supranational entity that was contemplated in the 2007 treaty,  to manage the external trade regulations of the member states, including relations with the WTO. That also marked the establishment of  the “single economic space” (SES) among the member countries which, in the words of the Centre for European Policy Studies paper, “envision[ed] further regulatory convergence and harmonisation of national laws” in particular economic sectors.

The treaty that was signed on May 29th is ostensibly to move from customs union towards a full economic union, with free movement of goods, capital, and people among the member states, but reality has so far proven to be less sweeping and heroic than the rhetoric that marked the occasion. The most obvious issue is that the EEU was originally envisioned to include not only Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, but also Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, and especially Ukraine. Ukraine would have added  a populous country with  economic potential and an an economy that (unlike Russia and Kazakhstan) was not based on natural resource exploitation. But Russia’s intervention in Ukraine  backfired: not only did it fail to bring Ukraine into the EEU fold but, according to a Radio Free Europe report, it has weakened the EEU by having: (more…)

Ukraine Parliament to Amend Constitution Re: the Rome Statute

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I’ve noted before, Ukraine’s Constitutional Court has held that the Ukraine cannot ratify the Rome Statute because — in the words of the ICRC — “the administration of justice is the exclusive competence of the courts and… judicial functions cannot be delegated to other bodies or officials.” According to the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (on twitter), the Rada is now considering a bill that would amend Ukraine’s constitution to make ratification possible. The text of the bill is in Ukrainian; if anyone out there would like to provide a translation (the bill is short), I’d be most appreciative:

Проект
вноситься народним депутатом України
Ю. Б. Дерев’янком
та іншими народними депутатами України

ЗАКОН УКРАЇНИ
Про внесення змін до статті 124 Конституції України

Верховна Рада України постановляє:

1. Доповнити статтю 124 Конституції України (Відомості Верховної Ради України, 1996 р., № 30, ст. 141) частиною шостою такого змісту:

“Україна може визнати юрисдикцію Міжнародного кримінального суду на умовах, передбачених Римським статутом Міжнародного кримінального суду.”

2. Цей Закон набирає чинності з дня, наступного за днем його опублікування.

Голова Верховної Ради  О. ТУРЧИНОВ
України

I’m intrigued by the fact that Ukraine’s parliament believes it has to amend the constitution in order to ratify the Rome Statute, but is free to accept the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis. The decision of the Constitutional Court prohibits any delegation of Ukraine’s jurisdiction to an international tribunal — which would seem to include ad hoc delegations as well as permanent delegations. But I’m obviously not an expert on Ukrainian law!

Thoughts on the Ukraine Ad Hoc Self-Referral

by Kevin Jon Heller

As readers no doubt know, Ukraine has accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction on an ad hoc basis for acts committed between 21 November 2013 and 22 February 2014. The self-referral has already led to a good deal of intelligent commentary — see, for example, Mark Leon Goldberg’s discussion of the politics of an ICC investigation here and Mark Kersten’s convincing argument that Russia may not be particularly opposed to an ICC investigation here. I just want to add a few additional thoughts.

To begin with, I remain troubled by the insistence of Ukraine’s Constitutional Court that Ukraine cannot delegate its adjudicative jurisdiction to an international court. As it said in 2001:

Article 124 of the Ukrainian Constitution states that the administration of justice is the exclusive competence of the courts and that judicial functions cannot be delegated to other bodies or officials. The Constitutional Court noted that the jurisdiction of the ICC under the Rome Statute is complementary to national judicial systems. However, under Article 4(2) of the Rome Statute, the ICC may exercise its functions and powers on the territory of any State party, and under Article 17, the ICC may find a case to be admissible if the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution. The Court concluded that jurisdiction supplementary to the national system was not contemplated by the Ukrainian Constitution. Hence, the amendment of the Constitution is required before the Statute can be ratified.

Parliament’s acceptance of the ICC’s jurisdiction, even on an ad hoc basis, seems specifically foreclosed by the Constitutional Court’s judgment. Ukraine’s President and Parliament clearly don’t care about that inconvenient fact; will the ICC? Martin Holtermann may be right — the ICC may simply defer to Ukraine’s President and Parliament. But I can help but think it would be unseemly for an international court like the ICC to simply ignore a clear judgment issued by the highest court in a state purporting to accept its jurisdiction. At the very least, Fatou Bensouda should take the Ukraine’s internal conflict into account when she decides whether to open a formal investigation — you can bet that any suspect wanted by the ICC would challenge the legality of the self-referral in Ukraine’s domestic courts, litigation that could make it very difficult for ICC proceedings to go forward.

Relatedly, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that Ukraine’s self-referral does not mean the OTP will open a formal investigation into the situation. Diane Amann writes today that the self-referral shows “Europe is on [the] ICC docket.” That’s true — but only in the formal sense. As Mark Kersten noted in February, Europe has been on the ICC docket for a long time in terms of preliminary investigations. After all, the OTP announced the Georgia investigation in August 2008 — nearly six years ago. (Its Afghanistan investigation has been plodding along even longer, since 2007.) That hasn’t quelled the voices that have been complaining — with justification — that the ICC has been overly obsessed with Africa. So unless and until the OTP decides to open a formal investigation into the situation in Ukraine, the country’s self-referral is unlikely to have any positive effect whatsoever on the Court’s African reputation.

Finally, a brief thought on the temporal limits of the self-referral. I don’t think the ICC will reject the referral on the ground that it is too carefully tailored to ensure only one side of the conflict. (A major problem with Comoros’s Mavi Marmara state referral.) The temporal limits, however narrow, make some sense — the referral begins when Yanukovych announced Ukraine was abandoning the agreement with the European Union and ends when Yanukovych fled the country. Should Ukraine have accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction for a longer period — most notably, to include Russia’s invasion of Crimea? I had an interesting twitter debate earlier today on that issue with a bunch of smart Court-watchers, including Ryan Goodman, Eugene Kontorovich, Mark Kersten, Martin Holtermann, and David Kaye. I pointed out that it’s difficult to see what international crimes Russia committed during the invasion, other than the non-prosecutable crime of aggression. Ryan replied that a longer self-referral could give the ICC an opportunity to address important issues in the law of occupation. (See also his post here.) That’s absolutely true — but only if Russia actually violates the law of occupation, which seems unlikely given the popularity (certainly not uniform) of the invasion and annexation within Crimea itself. The wildcard is the crime that Eugene mentioned during our discussion — the transfer of civilians into occupied territory. I have no idea whether Russia intends to directly or indirectly transfer Russians into Crimea; Eugene seems to think it does, and I will defer to his greater knowledge of the situation. But my position with regard to that possibility is the same as my position on Israel’s transfer of civilians into the West Bank: whatever the merits of the allegations, the war crime is legally uncertain and factually difficult to prove, especially when the transfer is indirect instead of direct — which it is in the West Bank and would almost certainly be in Crimea. In the absence of other violations of the law of occupation, therefore, I am not sure the OTP would get involved.

I imagine we will have much more to discuss concerning the ICC and Ukraine in the weeks to come!

Engaging the Writings of Martti Koskenniemi

by Duncan Hollis

MK2r_hollis (2)

Last Spring, Temple Law School was pleased to host a two day workshop on the scholarship of one of international law’s true giants — Martti Koskenniemi (simply put, I’m a big fan). Organized by my colleague, Jeff Dunoff, it was a great event with a wide-ranging conversation launching off Martti’s works in international legal theory, international legal history, fragmentation, interdisciplinary scholarship, ethics and the future of international law.  

Given how great the workshop was, I could not be more pleased to note that the accompanying papers have now been compiled and published in a single volume of the Temple International and Comparative Law Journal (vol. 27, no. 2). The full table of contents for the Symposium Issue can be found here

The papers include Jeff Dunoff’s framing introduction, a fascinating paper by Martti on the historiography of international law, and a slew of papers by renowned scholars, including Kim Scheppele, Tomer Broude, Sean Murphy, Mark Pollack, Rob Howse and Ruti Teitel, Samuel Moyn, Jan Klabbers, Andrew Lang and Susan Marks, Frédéric Mégret, and Ralf Michaels.  These papers address a number of themes that run through Koskenniemi’s work, including international law and empire; the fragmentation of international law; interdisciplinary approaches to international law; reading – and misreading – the tradition; and the international lawyer as ethical agent.  Both individually and collectively, the papers represent a significant effort to engage, explore, and extend the ideas found in Koskenniemi’s writings.

The special symposium issue is the first of what will be a tradition of yearly Symposia that will be organized by Temple faculty and published in the Journal.  As such, the Symposia marks a new form of collaboration between Temple faculty and students, and represent an experiment in academic publishing designed to provide students the experience of editing papers on cutting-edge research, and at the same time injecting faculty expertise into the selection and substantive editing of papers.

Guest Post: The Russia-Crimea Treaty

by Gregory H. Fox

[Gregory H. Fox is a Professor of Law and Director of the Program for International Legal Studies at Wayne State University Law School.  I would like to thank my colleague Brad Roth for helpful comments on a draft of this post.]

The latest development in Crimea’s headlong rush out of Ukraine is an agreement, signed on Sunday, March 16, between the Russian Federation and the Crimea. While I have not found a full translation of the agreement from Russian, the full text is available on the Kremlin website (as is President Putin’s extended response to western international legal arguments, which is well worth reading in full).

In rough translation, Article 1 of the treaty provides that the “Republic of Crimea is considered to be adopted in the Russian Federation from the date of signing of this Agreement.”  The incorporation is “based on the free and voluntary will of the peoples of the Crimea.”  Article 2 announces the formation of two new entities, the Republic of Crimea and the “federal city of Sevastopol.”  Article 5 provides that residents of Crimea will become Russian citizens, unless within one month they choose another nationality. Article 6 describes a seven month transition period during which the economic, financial, credit and legal systems in Crimea will be integrated into those of the Russian Federation.”

The agreement has been accurately described as completing the annexation of Crimea.  Territory that thirteen of fifteen Security Council members believe is still part of Ukraine has been transferred to Russian control.  Let me make three quick observations about this agreement.
(more…)

From Intervention to Recognition: Russia, Crimea, and Arguments over Recognizing Secessionist Entities

by Chris Borgen

In a matter of days, we have gone from talking about the illegality of Russia’s military intervention, to issues of the Crimean referendum, to Russia’s recognition of Crimea as a new state. While these events have moved quite rapidly, they are not really surprising: arguments over attempted secessions often shift from the question of the legality of the secession itself (about which, as discussed in a previous post, international law is largely silent; although it is generally understood that secession is not a right), to the question of the legality of the recognition of the secession. That is a subtly different question.

By recognizing Crimea, Russia is attempting to shift the discussion off of the issue of military intervention and also, by its recognition, “create facts on the ground” that will at least help Russia;s own negotiating position, if not lay the groundwork for Russia annexing Crimea (by having a Crimean “sovereign state” ask to join Russia). To assess how Russia is doing this, this post will consider the law of recognition and the following post will consider how Russia has used arguments about recognition in relation to Kosovo and South Ossetia in comparison to what it is doing today regarding Crimea.

For this post, the underlying question is whether Russia’s recognition of Crimea was possibly an illegal act.

First of all, what is “recognition?” There are actually different types of recognition: recognition of statehood, recognition of a government, and recognition of a belligerency, recognition of territorial change. For the moment, we are talking about whether Crimea can and should be recognized as a state. In the days to come, we may be talking about issues of recognizing territorial change, if Russia attempts to annex Crimea.

States tend to view the decision to recognize or not recognize an entity as a state as a political decision, albeit one that exists within an international legal framework. That legal framework is in part the rules of statehood. The standard view in international law is that a state must have (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) a government; and (d) the capacity to enter relations with other states.

While entities that claim statehood often try to do a quick “check the box” summary of these criteria and claim they have all the requirements of statehood, the actual assessment is meant to be more rigorous than a soundbite. For Crimea, the problems include that its territory is completely contested—this isn’t an issue of where the border between Crimea and Ukraine should be, this is a dispute over the whole of the territory of Crimea. Moreover, whether Crimea has a functional government or the capacity to enter into international relations are both very much in doubt: Crimea as a supposedly independent entity would not exist but for Russian military intervention. The control of Crimean territory seems to be more under the command of the Russian President than the Crimean authorities. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself what would happen if the Crimean “president” said he wanted all roads to Ukraine reopened and the Russian barriers taken down. Would his command be decisive? Or President Putin’s?

These criteria are meant to reflect the nuts and bolts of sovereignty: an ability to stand on your own feet, make decisions for yourself, and undertake international relations. Crimea seems less like a sovereign than a hothouse flower: alive due to extraordinary intervention, surviving due to conditions carefully controlled by others, and with little real say in its destiny.

What does the law of recognition have to say about such a case, when it is doubtful that Crimea even meets the basic requirements of statehood? Can Russia just recognize it anyway?…         (Continue Reading)

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Potential Non-recognition of Crimea

by Anna Dolidze

[ Dr. Anna Dolidze is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law, the University of Western Ontario.]

On Sunday the inhabitants of the Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea voted in a referendum on whether Crimea should become part of the Russian Federation or regain the status under the 1992 Constitution as part of Ukraine. A March 11, 2014 Declaration of Independence by the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea preceded the referendum. The Declaration specifically referenced the International Court of Justice’s decision in relation to the status of Kosovo. According to the preliminary results published by the Crimean authorities about 95% of voters voted in favor of the union with Russia, while the overall turnout was 81.%.

While the results were celebrated in Simferopol, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing Crimea’s independence. However, this post argues that the Crimean Republic might become subject to the doctrine of non-recognition. The initial evidence suggests that it might follow the footsteps of other self- declared independent entities, including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) that have declared independence, yet failed to attain statehood partly due to the application of the doctrine.

As Thomas Grant explains in his book The Recognition of States, Law and Practice in Debate and Evolution recognition has served international society as a device by which to respond to changes in the world public order and the emergence of new states. In the process of the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) the principles on recognition acquired renewed importance. Professor John Dugard points out that the recognition by other states remains important even to those who share prevalence of declaratory doctrine of recognition, which maintains that a political community that meets the requirements of statehood automatically qualifies as a “State” and that recognition by other states simply acknowledges “as a fact something which has hitherto been uncertain.” For example, although the Supreme Court of Canada, discussing the legality of possible secession by Quebec from Canada, adopted the declaratory theory of recognition, it emphasized “the viability of a would-be state in the international community depends, as a practical matter, upon recognition by other states.” Although recognition of states is primarily a bi-lateral affair, as Professor John Cerone notes, collective recognition or non-recognition by an overwhelming majority of states may impact the question of the existence of a state by influencing the application and appreciation of the Montevideo criteria on statehood.The admission to the United Nations and the European Union (the European Communities previously) has been acknowledged as a form of collective recognition that significantly influences the statehood status.

The recognition of Kosovo is an interesting example in this regard. It might be argued that the recognition of Kosovo bears the traits of collective recognition, but in fact it remains to be an individualized affair among states….(Continue Reading)

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Intervention and Colonialism as Responses to Alleged Fascism

by Boris Mamlyuk

[Boris N. Mamlyuk, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Memphis School of Law.]

Julian Ku makes an interesting observation regarding Russia’s fact-based arguments in support of Crimea, versus what most commentators see as a weak legal case for self-determination.  Over the past week, I’ve tried to offer several mapping exercises in order to explore the expanding range of international law arguments and potential violations.  The purpose was by no means to describe a “Russian point of view,” or to criticize U.S. international law commentators, of which I am one.  Rather, the attempt was to assume in good faith the factual assertions proposed by Russia in support of Crimean independence, and then to explore the ramifications of the current standoff from the perspective of international law. 

Russia’s mounting argument for humanitarian intervention beyond Crimea, in Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine, needs to be scrutinized carefully.  Thus far, Russia seems to be merely reserving the right to intervene, and to my knowledge, the Russian government has not articulated a standard for humanitarian intervention in Ukraine, or a ‘red line’ that would trigger an R2P intervention.  Short of that, we can consider the most recent standard for humanitarian intervention, formulated in the UK’s guidance document on the proposed intervention in Syria.  According to this guidance document, humanitarian intervention is permissible where:

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved; and

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).  (emphasis added).

These elements fall far short of the R2P ‘three pillar’ approach, which includes an express responsibility to prevent humanitarian catastrophe.  The current situation in Ukraine, while fluid and dangerous, does not seem to have risen to the level of extreme humanitarian distress required for intervention.  What Russia seems to be doing, then, is positioning itself for an intervention in the event of further escalation of violence… (Continue Reading)

Is the Crimea Crisis a Factual or Legal Disagreement?

by Julian Ku

University of Memphis law professor Boris Mamlyuk criticizes most U.S. international law commentary on the Crimea/Ukraine crisis for failing to take seriously the Russian point of view. I’ve noticed several commenters here have also complained about our pro-Western bias.  Part of the problem is that there is a dearth of international law commentators writing in English in favor of the Russian legal position. Even Prof. Mamlyuk’s short essay doesn’t try to defend or explain Russia’s legal position, except to point out that Ukraine may have committed some minor violations of its own.  But let me try to at least explore Russia’s position in more detail. The best defense I can come up with is that Russia is arguing the “facts” and not the “law.”

During today’s Security Council debate, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin appears to have given a fuller defense of Russia’s legal position, at least vis-a-vis the upcoming Crimea referendum.

“Some dispute the legality of such a referendum, but it is unacceptable to manipulate individual principles and norms of international law, randomly pulling them out of context not only of the international law, but the specific political circumstances and historical aspects,” Churkin said.

In each case, the envoy believes, one should “balance between the principles of territorial integrity and the right for self-determination.”

“It is clear that the implementation of the right of self-determination in the form of separation from the existing state is an extraordinary measure. In Crimea such a case apparently arose as a result of a legal vacuum, which emerged as a result of unconstitutional, violent coup d’état carried out in Kiev by radical nationalists, as well as direct threats by the latter to impose their order on the whole territory of Ukraine.”

I am pretty surprised that Russia is  endorsing this expansive view of self-determination, which I think could be fairly invoked by certain parts of Russia itself (Hello, Chechnya!).  But I suppose the dispute here with the West could be understood as factual rather than legal.  Most scholars would accept the idea that self-determination is appropriate in certain exceptional circumstances, such as decolonization or when facing the threat of genocide or other mass killings. No one west of the Ukraine border seems to think Crimea qualifies (except the good folks at RT) because none of us think that the new Ukrainian government has threatened Crimea in any tangible way.  But Russia could be understood to be arguing the facts (see, Crimea really is threatened by the fascists in Kiev) rather than the law.  I think it is a pretty ludicrous factual argument, but there it is.

Russia’s position on the use of military force is also factual rather than legal.  It argues that there are no Russian forces in Crimea other than the naval forces that are stationed there by treaty right. It simply denies that the forces in control in Crimea are official Russian troops.  This appears to be an even more ludicrous factual claim, but it also would mean that Russia accepts that open displays of military force would be a violation of the Charter.

Russia’s shift to factual rather than legal arguments is smart because it parries US and EU criticisms about the “violation of international law.”  It doesn’t rebut those charges terribly well, mind you, but perhaps the argument is just strong enough to convince those who want to find ways to accept the legality of Russia’s actions.

Ukraine Insta-Symposium: Crimea, Ukraine and Russia: Self-Determination, Intervention and International Law

by Kristin Hausler and Robert McCorquodale

[Robert McCorquodale is the Director of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and Professor of International Law and Human Rights at the University of Nottingham.]

Our responses to what has been happening in Ukraine and the reactions of various governments, may depend on how we view the politics of the region and the moral claims being made. The rule of law is also of direct relevance, as ‘[we] believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.’ These words are those of President Putin, written a few months ago in order to prevent the US, UK and other governments from intervening in Syria. International law is crucial to the situation in the Ukraine. It is of particular relevance to the right of self-determination of the people of Crimea and whether Russia can lawfully intervene on the territory of Ukraine.

The right of self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter and international human rights treaties, enables a people to determine for themselves their political, economic, social and cultural status. It has been applied in recent years in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and South Sudan.  It is certainly arguable that the people in the Crimea have a distinct identity and territory, created over centuries and fostered by decisions of the USSR, Russia and Ukraine. This includes its status as an autonomous region within the state of Ukraine and by specific agreements about it between Russia and Ukraine.  It is not unlawful for it to have a referendum and declare itself independent (or that it wishes to merge with Russia), as this was allowed by the International Court of Justice in its (poorly reasoned) advisory opinion on the declaration of independence by Kosovo.

However, such a declaration of independence or merging is not effective in international law by itself. There are two key factors that are relevant: the actions of the state within whose borders the people live; and the responses of the international community. (more…)

Does It Really Violate International Law for Crimea to Hold a Referendum on Secession?

by Julian Ku

I am looking forward to the contributions to our “insta-symposium” on Ukraine and international law. I don’t have a tremendous amount to add at this point, except to point out that President Obama has been aggressive about accusing Russia of violating international law and about the importance of international law generally.  This has gone beyond merely charging Russia with violation of the prohibitions on aggression and the use of force contained in the U.N. Charter.  In his statement today, he took aim at the proposed referendum in Crimea on joining Russia:

He also said that a proposed referendum in Ukraine’s Crimea region — one that, as proposed by proposed by pro-Russian Crimean lawmakers, would ask residents whether Crimea should be part of Ukraine or Russia — would “violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law.”

Any discussion about a referendum must include Ukraine’s legitimate government, Obama said. Washington considers Ukraine’s legitimate government to be the one installed by Parliament after last month’s ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych following months of protests.

Putting aside the Ukrainian law question, it is interesting that the U.S. government is specifically condemning the proposed referendum as a violation of international law.  Why exactly would the mere referendum (as opposed to the act of secession) violate international law?

I look forward to the views of our contributors and my fellow co-bloggers on this point, but on my first reading, the claim that the referendum would violate international law is undercut by the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence.  In that opinion, the ICJ found (among other things) that general international law does not prohibit unilateral declarations of independence. I don’t see how the proposed referendum is really any different from a unilateral declaration of independence, at least from the perspective of international law.  The authors of the “unilateral” declaration of independence did not consult Serbian authorities (much less get its consent). Like the declaration of independence, the referendum does not by itself “secede” Crimea from Ukraine under international law.  And unlike the declaration of independence, the referendum could find support (if other conditions are met) in the law of self-determination.

I am personally sympathetic to the Ukrainian government here. But I am not sure President Obama is right about this legal point, and even if he is, I am not sure the U.S. ought to be committing itself to the position that this referendum is illegal.   If there is a deal to be made here (as Henry Kissinger recommends here), this statement seems to make it harder to get to that deal.

I have one final thought on why this statement might make sense. There is one country who is probably more opposed to a referendum on secession than the U.S: that would be Russia, which can’t exactly be ready to endorse this possibility for Chechnya or other restive Russian regions. Nor are the Chinese going to be excited by this referendum (think what a referendum in Tibet or Xinjiang would look like).  The President may be counting on the Russians to put a stop to the referendum, and maybe this statement would help them do that.  I hope that is the strategy, anyway.