How Russia responded to Ukraine’s claims before the ICJ makes interesting reading.
WHILE Russia decided not to participate in the oral proceedings at the International Court of Justice [ICJ] in the case instituted against it by Ukraine, it has now responded to Ukraine’s claims. This response is via a United Nations Security Council document. The document is in the ‘Other documents’ section, not in the written proceedings section on the ICJ’s website. This categorization is significant since it means that Russia has not formally responded to Ukraine’s claims at the ICJ. Nonetheless, the document is the only avenue where Russia’s position has been stated clearly regarding the ongoing case brought against it by Ukraine. As such, it is imperative to dissect the document to understand what Russia’s counter-claims in the case are.
Also read: As Ukraine and Russia (in absentia) battle it out at the International Court of Justice, the question of genocide is under scrutiny
Reason for not participating in the oral proceedings
The document notes the reason for Russia’s non-participation at the Oral Proceedings. The reason, it seems, was lack of time to respond. On February 26, Ukraine submitted its application for proceedings. On February 28, the Russian embassy in Netherlands received a copy of the application.
On that very date, the Registrar of ICJ consulted the Russian Ambassador about possible dates for oral proceedings. According to the document, “The Ambassador…indicated that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to take all necessary decisions regarding the participation in the proceedings and conduct proper analyses of the Request in five working days.”
The way Russia has formulated its arguments are indeed laudable and more importantly, legally sound. One needs to keep in mind that Russia’s essential argument is neither about genocide nor about the use of force, but it is essentially about the court’s lack of jurisdiction.
The document does not clarify whether the Registrar had given the time limit of five days. However, in some of the cases of urgent nature, the respondents have been given five working days’ time period for responding. For example, in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case, where the Provisional Measures requested included non-execution of Jadhav, India has requested for Provisional Measures on May 8, 2017 and Oral Proceedings happened on May 15, 2017, exactly after five working days. In this light and considering the loss of lives on a daily basis due to the ongoing armed conflict, it seems reasonable that the court didn’t wait for more than five working days for the oral proceedings.
Also read: International Law violations by Russia in its invasion of Ukraine
On court’s lack of jurisdiction
The most significant claim made in the document is Russia’s denial regarding genocide. Ukraine has argued before the ICJ that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is aimed at ‘preventing and punishing’ for, acts of genocide. Ukraine had argued that Russia has claimed commission of genocide by Ukraine and on that pretext, had attacked it. However, now Russia is claiming that it never used the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as a justification for attacking Ukraine. Instead, its attack was/is based on Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and customary international law (para 15). Though it acknowledges use of the term ‘genocide’, it argues that such use was not in the context of the Genocide Convention.
The document notes that:
“A reference to genocide is not equal to the invocation of the Convention or the existence of a dispute under it, since the notion of genocide exists in customary international law independently of the Convention. It also exists in national legal systems of States including in the Russian Federation and Ukraine. There are no references to the Convention in the statement of the President of the Russian Federation to which the Government of Ukraine refers.” (para 20)
A noted public international law scholar has asserted that: “This highly formalistic argument has little weight. There is no material difference between the concept of genocide under the Convention and under customary law, and its definition under the domestic laws of the two states is irrelevant.” I respectfully disagree, since Russia’s claims are about jurisdiction of the court, and not about genocide under the Genocide conventions or customary international law per se. Ukraine has approached the Court under the Genocide Convention and not customary international law, and the Court needs to be located its jurisdiction within the Convention and not elsewhere.
Having said that, the way Russia has formulated its arguments are indeed laudable and more importantly, legally sound. One needs to keep in mind that Russia’s essential argument is neither about genocide nor about the use of force, but it is essentially about the court’s lack of jurisdiction. At this preliminary stage of proceedings, the court first has to decide whether it has jurisdiction or not; only then it can even issue Provisional Measures.
Russia’s arguments are therefore aimed at challenging the court’s jurisdiction. In my view, Russia’s arguments do hold legal value, even more than Ukraine’s arguments. This is primarily because of Russia’s rejection of genocide claims. In that light, the court will have to look closely at the statements referred to by the Ukrainian side to buttress their arguments about Russia’s claims of genocide.
Also read: Imperialism of our times: understanding the Russian war on Ukraine
Russia has made a good argument about the court’s lack of jurisdiction. It has attempted to make the dispute about the use of force and customary international law, thereby making the Genocide Convention redundant. It has said that:
“Nowhere in the Convention may one find any reference to the use of force between States or recognition of States, which are regulated by the United Nations Charter and customary international law. To read them into the Convention by implication would be to substantially amend and distort the object and purpose of the Convention.” (para 12)
Russia’s arguments do hold legal value, even more than Ukraine’s arguments. This is primarily because of Russia’s rejection of genocide claims.
More importantly, as per the Russian side, there is no dispute regarding the Genocide Convention. Ukraine has approached the court under Article IX of the Genocide Convention which states that:
“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.” (Emphasis mine)
Now as per Russia’s claim, there is no dispute on interpretation, application or fulfilment of the Genocide Convention. As such, it will be difficult for the court to find jurisdiction in the case. Some other international law commentators, however, are more optimistic (see here and here).
(The views expressed are personal.)