The Ukraine-Russia conflict before the ICJ

The president of Ukraine has tweeted today, that Ukraine turns to the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Russia, arguing it “manipulating the notion of genocide to justify aggression”. Some time later, the court has published the relevant press release, which has helped to clarify the exact claims and arguments.

Originally, based on the tweet itself, I was quite pessimistic about the application, and I thought that the court will come to the conclusion of not having the proper jurisdictional base and – after a few month – will end the case. As a consequence of this, the request of Ukraine to order provisional measures against Russia also seemed to have a weak base, as it requires jurisdiction at least “prima facie”, meaning that the court at least “at first sight”, based on a quick examination, has to take a position about the case being suitable for examination on the merits. Provisional measures, being possible in this case, mean legally binding orders from the court to specific behaviour or action to the states involved in the debate.

Why is it so? The answer is fairly simple. The current international legal order, being built on sovereignty of states, requires some form of the involved states’ consent to the proceedings leading to a legally binding judgment before the ICJ. The most clear case is, when the parties in the dispute jointly turn to the ICJ (like in the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros case between Hungary and Slovakia), but this consent may also be indirect: a so-called jurisdiction clause may be added to international treaties, based on which any state party can turn to the ICJ in the case of violation of that treaty. This is quite commonly used, and usually this is how the ICJ can get access to cases with serious tensions, when the states involved do not even talk to each other, and definitely would not go to the court hand-in-hand together. This was the base for example of more proceedings between the US and Iran, and this gave the possibility to Palestine against the US, to initiate a proceeding because of it moving its embassy into Jerusalem.

There may be hope for the proceeding to advance, if it is based on the UN Genocide Convention. The president’s tweet was vaguely referring to this option, and it is later reaffirmed by the press release. Both Ukraine and Russia is party to it, and its article IX contains a jurisdictional clause (“Disputes between the Contracting Parties relating to the interpretation, application or fulfilment of the present Convention, including those relating to the responsibility of a State for genocide or for any of the other acts enumerated in article III, shall be submitted to the International Court of Justice at the request of any of the parties to the dispute.”), meaning that the ICJ does not need an explicit consent from the defendant state, Russia. Still, its examination has to be narrowed to questions related to the Genocide Convention, and first, agression is not inseperable from this, second, so far genocide has only been present on the level of political propaganda, not reality. Still, some parts of the application, published by the press release indicates a very interesting argumentation line from Ukraine: it argues that the false accusations of genocide, used to provide legal grounds for recognising the breakaway regions as states and for its military invasion constitutes a violation of the convention. Smart. The court may not accept this argument in the end, but I believe it is capable of finding jurisdiction “prima facie”, proving the legal ground for provisional measures.

Still, this will not provide jurisdiction for the ICJ to examine the question of agression. In earlier proceedings, more states have tried to smuggle this question into cases on different jurisdictional base (see e.g. the case initiated by Georgia against Russia after their 2008 conflict, or the cases initiated by Armenia and Azerbaijan against each other last year, all of those being based on the jurisdiction clause included in article 22 of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination), but the court has always been reluctant to apply such an extensive interpretation, and even if it has ordered provisional measures, those have always been closely related to the given international treaty providing the jurisdiction.

At the same time, it may be worthy to add, that these cases are often not initiated by the states because they want legal results, rather to project the image of “fighting on all fronts”. Even if the governments know not to expect any results – this may be simple PR. Of course it does not neccessarily mean, that the state is not right on the merits, but it is not enough, if there is no jurisdiction of the ICJ…

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