Russia’s invasion of Ukraine highlights how some countries can so easily breach the United Nations Charter provision on the prohibition on the use of force. Imperfect as the Charter may be, it has still achieved a tenuous peace since World War II by prohibiting resort to force except in two very well defined exceptions: self-defense, and when so authorized by the UN Security Council. Contemporaneous with the UN Charter is the international community’s resolve to penalize individuals who may start wars for the international crime of aggression. In fact, the first prosecution for this crime was against the Nazis for their act of waging war during World War II. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and even President George Bush II continue to be accused of this crime of aggression in Germany and Belgium.
Note though that when strong countries violate the prohibition against the use of force, they will argue that despite their action that they have complied with the normative rule against the waging of wars. For instance, the United States, when it invaded Iraq a second time around—this was after Iraq had already been driven out of Kuwait—argued that despite the absence of a fresh mandate from the Security Council, its acts were nonetheless covered by the earlier Security Council Resolution authorizing the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait. In Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that his action was to protect the millions of Russians living in Ukraine after an incredibly corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian President was deposed in a bloodless people power reminiscent of ours in 1986. It was therefore the exercise of jurisdiction to defend millions of its ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.
But superpower rhetoric, more often than not, is farthest from the truth. In both Iraq and Ukraine, it was economic interest that propelled superpowers to breach international law. In Iraq, it was to enable Bush’s campaign contributors form Texas, notably oil and gas companies, to take over the lucrative oil and gas fields of Iraq. In Ukraine, it is similarly, to enable Russia to control recent oil and gas deposits discovered found in the area, specifically in Romania. In fact, Ukraine, after gas was discovered in Romania, was about to sign an exploration agreement with oil giant Exxon. I do not think this is forthcoming anymore. Moreover, like the Americans who want to use out military installations through the Increased Rotational Agreement, the entire Russian naval fleet is stationed in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, pursuant to what many believe is a one-sided treaty.
Of course President Obama has come under fire from his Republican critics for allowing Russia to act with impunity. What these critics do not tell the public is that the US cannot question the acts of Russia because it has unclean hands. By invading and still occupying Iraq today, it is equally guilty of violating the prohibition on the use of force. It therefore has no moral and legal standing to question Russia’s acts because of the “unclean hands doctrine”—a state cannot come to court with unclean hands.
So should Filipinos stand idly by and accept the realities of power politics i.e., that might is right?
Far from it. Imperfect as the world may be, weak countries like the Philippines can only rely on the rule of law to achieve a semblance of equality with its mighty neighbors. The Philippines should be at the forefront of protesting any resort to the unlawful use of force because our own powerful neighbor, China, may just follow suit and eject all our troops from the islands that we currently occupy in the disputed Spratly group of islands. They have done this in the past when they took control of Mischief Reef and Panatag. They have been threatening to drive our boys away from the derelict warship that is our basis of our occupation of Ayungin shoal. They certainly could very well invade Kalayaan and eject all nationals from there. If the US and Russia could invade the mainland’s of Iraq and Ukraine, China could certainly invade remote and uninhabited islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Which leads me back to the normative value of the United Nations Charter. Yes, Chapter VII of the Charter, which is the section on collective security measures, the means envisioned to prevent another “scourge of war”, is far from perfect. But its literal provisions give weak countries such as the Philippines comfort that despite inequity in power politics, international law seeks still to achieve equality before the law.
Let’s condemn both the continuing US occupation of Iraq and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine!