[Tali Kolesov Har-Oz and Ori Pomson are teaching assistants and LL.B. candidates at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Law Faculty]
Following the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich by protesters and parliament, Russian military forces took over key positions in the autonomous region of Crimea (timeline available here). One of Russia’s justifications for militarily intervening in Ukraine has been the reported request by the ousted Yanukovich for Russia’s assistance (see for example here and here). Though the respect for territorial integrity is a fundamental principle of international law and a military intervention would thus clearly violate this rule (UN Charter, art. 2; UN Doc. A/RES/25/2625), Russia’s position is that it has not violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in light of – inter alia – Yanukovich’s alleged consent. This raises the question, which this piece will address, of how to determine which government or leader – if any – may authorize a military intervention in a State.
It is generally recognized that a State may intervene in another State if the latter’s government provided prior consent (see DRC v Uganda, ¶¶46-47; ARSIWA Commentaries, 74). However, already in the early post-Charter era it became very apparent that the pretext of consent could be subject to serious abuse (Wright, 274-76). Accordingly, there must be “thorough scrutiny” in assessing whether actual and legal consent has been given (Dinstein, §321).
Only a legitimate government may bind a State in international law (D’Aspremont, 878-879). Thus, in order to determine who is entitled to request such a military intervention, we must first identify the legitimate government of that State.
While there are no objective criteria to determine governments’ legitimacy (D’Aspremont, at 878-879), governmental status in the legal literature is regularly equated with territorial effectiveness (Oppenheim’s International Law 150-54 (9th ed. 1992)). However, several authors have argued that governments also derive their legitimacy from the extent to which they come to power through participatory political mechanisms (Franck, 47), or through the internal processes in the State (Roth, 31). Thus, it is quite clear that where a government is effectively replaced by another through legal means, the new government – having complied with both the territorial effectiveness test and the political participation test – may bind a State in international law.
The interesting legal questions arise where an illegal change of power leads to the existence, simultaneously, of separate de facto and de jure governments. In other words, which would be considered the legitimate government where – as claimed by Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin – an insurgent faction has successfully established itself as the de facto government by overthrowing an existing constitutional structure?