Ukraine Insta-Symposium: When does the Breach of a Status of Forces Agreement amount to an Act of Aggression? The Case of Ukraine and the Black Sea Fleet SOFA
[Dr. Aurel Sari is a Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter.]
Over the last few days, a growing number of commentators and international actors have denounced the deployment of Russian troops in Crimea not simply as a violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine, but as an act of aggression. At its extraordinary meeting held on 3 March 2014, the Council of the European Union condemned “the clear violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by acts of aggression by the Russian armed forces”. On 4 March 2014, United States Secretary of State John Kerry followed suit at a press briefing held at the US Embassy in Kiev.
A prima facie case of aggression
Assuming for the sake of argument that the activities of Russian armed forces in Crimea do not benefit from the valid consent of the Ukraine (the question is at least arguable: see here and here), a good case can indeed be made that their presence and conduct fits the archetypical example of aggression, namely the ‘invasion or attack by the armed forces of a State of the territory of another State’ as defined in Article 3(a) of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX) on the Definition of Aggression of 1974.
In so far as aggression is said to constitute ‘the most serious and dangerous form of the illegal use of force’ (Preamble, Definition of Aggression), the situation in Crimea must reach a certain threshold of gravity in order to qualify as an act of aggression. Neither the exact level of this threshold nor the facts on the ground are established beyond all reasonable doubt. However, it is safe to assume that the deployment of Russian forces to maintain public order in Crimea and to blockade and occupy Ukrainian military premises and assets in such a continuous and robust manner as we have seen in the last few days rises above the level of a ‘mere frontier incident’ or ‘less grave forms of the use of force’ (Nicaragua, paras 191 and 195). As such, these acts may reasonably be characterized as aggression on account of their scale and effects.
Article 3(e) of the Definition of Aggression
As reported earlier, the Ukrainian Association of International Law has come to the same conclusion in its recent appeal regarding the events in Crimea. Amongst other things, the Association suggests that the Russian Federation has committed an act of aggression as a result of being in material breach of the Agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the Status and Conditions of the Presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on the Territory of Ukraine of 8 of August 1997 (the Black Sea Fleet SOFA; see here in Russian). This argument raises an interesting question about the application of Article 3(e) of the Definition of Aggression. Pursuant to Article 3(e), the following acts shall constitute an act of aggression:
The use of armed forces of one State which are within the territory of another State with the agreement of the receiving State, in contravention of the conditions provided for in the agreement or any extension of their presence in such territory beyond the termination of the agreement.
Compared to some of the other acts listed in Article 3, the incidents envisaged under Article 3(e) of the Definition may appear relatively benign or even banal. Whereas an armed invasion, attack or bombardment will amount to an act of aggression only if it entails the use of force at a relatively high level of intensity, it seems that even a minor breach of a status of forces agreement could qualify as an act of aggression under Article 3(e) even if it causes no damage or destruction in the host State. Some commentators have therefore questioned whether Article 3(e) should have been included in the Definition at all.
The importance of contextual interpretation
State practice offers a number of examples where foreign armed forces are present abroad without the consent of the territorial State or another valid legal basis, yet their presence does not come within the Definition of Aggression. A case in point is the accidental ‘invasion’ of Liechtenstein by 170 Swiss troops who got lost in a military exercise in 2007. No one, it seems, has suggested that Switzerland has committed an act of aggression against Liechtenstein, despite the fact that this was not the first such intrusion. Despite the strict terms of Article 3(e), it seems that context is everything.
This point was certainly not lost on the drafters of the Definition of Aggression. The Six Power draft submitted on 25 March 1969 by the Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom defined aggression with reference to a prohibited purpose, thus giving rise to protracted debates as to whether the presence of an ‘animus aggressionis’ was a necessary element of aggression (see UN Doc A/7620). Eventually, any express references to aggressive intent were removed from the Definition. However, an implicit reference to intent was retained in Article 2 of the Definition, which declares that the Security Council may conclude that determining the prima facie existence of an act of aggression would not be justified ‘in the light of other relevant circumstances, including the fact that the acts concerned or their consequences are not of sufficient gravity.’ Although Article 2 is specifically addressed to the Security Council, Article 3 declares that it must be applied ‘subject to and in accordance with the provisions of article 2’. This point is further underlined by Article 8 of the Definition, which provides that ‘[i]n their interpretation and application the above provisions are interrelated and each provision should be construed in the context of the other provisions.’ (more…)