Thinking Aloud: Crimea and International Law

Mar. 7, 2014 by Darius 

Yesterday former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote an unusually thoughtful op-ed in The Washington Post about the history behind the current situation in Ukraine and how Ukraine and the world should proceed.  Kissinger makes the argument, though, that Crimea should not leave Ukraine to join Russia because to do so would be in violation of international law, even if a majority of Crimeans wished to do so.  But why shouldn’t people today have the right to correct bad borders drawn unilaterally without local consent?  It’s an issue far broader than Ukraine.

When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev ceded Crimea to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in 1954, he did so without going through proper Soviet legal channels and without consulting the people of Crimea.  These facts are not in dispute.  Why, then, should the people of Crimea continue to be bound by that decision under an interpretation of “international law”?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Crimea should leave Ukraine.  But I am suggesting that old Soviet-era borders, decided without regard for local preferences, should not be cited as the reason to stop the people of Crimea from leaving Ukraine if they so choose.  If a country or region can divorce peacefully and adopt a set of borders that better reflect sectarian, ethnic, or political lines on the ground, why should the international community stop them?

Moreover, there is the non-insignificant matter of hypocrisy.  The parties that created the current world order and, with it, “international law,” were primarily the US and a handful of European countries.  However, these very same countries, through their colonial conquests, are responsible for creating the toxic borders that spill over into conflict today – in Europe, in Africa, and in the Middle East.  Not only did these nations create the problem, they now refuse to allow the people affected to fix it.

Finally, there is hypocrisy over the guarantee international law provides to national sovereignty.  Today, the United States is touting “international law” to thwart Russia’s aims.  But every day for the last 45+ years, the US’s close ally, Israel, has been in flagrant and continuous violation of the exact same international law with nary a peep from the US.

For it to have real meaning, “international law” should not be a tool used by the great powers to enforce their will when it suits them and never otherwise.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: Crimea and International Law

  1. Pingback: Thinking Aloud: Year in Review Countdown #3 | Not What You Might Think

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