The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the top court of the United Nations, has ordered Russia to “immediately suspend” its military operations in Ukraine.
We already knew Russia’s invasion was illegal in international law. But the ICJ decision now makes it virtually impossible for anyone, including Russia, to deny that illegality. It is also impressive because Ukraine used a creative strategy to get the ICJ to hear the case, based on the Genocide Convention of 1948.
First, he claimed Russia was acting in “self-defence”. Self-defence is an established reason to use military force in international law. Second, Putin claimed Ukraine was committing genocide against ethnic Russians. This is just as factually and legally flimsy as the self-defence argument.
Of the 15 judges, almost all agreed to order Russia to “immediately suspend” it’s military operations. There were two dissenters: the judges of Russian and Chinese nationality.
This was what is called a “provisional measures” order – an emergency ruling made before the court hears the whole case. Provisional measures are binding. That is important. It means even if Russia maintains incorrectly that the invasion is legal, it is now breaching international law anyway by failing to comply with the ICJ’s order.
However, a binding ruling is not the same as an enforceable one. Just as there is no global government to give the ICJ more power, there are no global police to enforce its decisions.
Another strength of Ukraine’s case is that there is, in any event, no rule in international law automatically giving one state a right to invade another state to stop a genocide. One reason is that a cynical aggressor could manipulate or abuse such a rule. That is basically what this case is all about.