Political Concepts

Ukraine: Practically there is no such thing as international law which can constrain state behavior


The European Union and United States have agreed to impose sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials deemed responsible for a contested independence referendum in Crimea, officials have said. [Source: aljazeera]


Rejecting the results of Crimea’s referendum which showed that a large majority of Crimea’s residents want to join the Russian federation the White House said the vote was held under “threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention”.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who said, “Nothing in the way that the referendum has been conducted should convince anyone that it is a legitimate exercise”. It is ironic and hypocritical that the West should reject the results of a referendum in Crimea held under occupation while it supports and upholds rather presents as a sign of progress, a very similar exercise, and the Presidential elections in Afghanistan due next month. Crimea and Afghanistan are both under occupation. Elections in both areas are and would be held under occupation yet due to their divergent interests in both areas the West supports elections under its own occupation in Afghanistan and opposes elections under the Russian Federation in Crimea.

It is also important to note the scale and nature of Western response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and to West’s response to Saddam Hussein’s attempt to annex Kuwait in 1990. In the latter case the West mobilized militarily and was able to gather a broad coalition of countries to reverse the Iraqi action. In the case of Russia the West is mainly planning to deploy economic sanctions and employing similar policy tools to hurt Russia economically. The stark difference in approach and its reason is obvious. The West knows it cannot take on the Russians militarily while it was confident that with the help of pliant Muslim rulers of Iraq’s neighbors it can deploy military force against Iraq.

The Ukrainian Crisis is a good lesson in international relations and international struggle. Firstly, there is practically no such thing as international law which can act as a constraining force against state behaviors. The idea of a law governing the relations of a comity of nations is a flawed one because for such a system to work a mechanism for enforcing the law when it is breached must be in place. Such a concept of accepting an enforcer of international law runs directly against the idea of sovereignty of countries which must accept an authority above them. No country which guards its sovereignty would accept such an authority. Iraq was not in a position to militarily defy the US when it was acting as a global enforcer of the so called international law, Russia was. Secondly as is evident from the different interpretations of electoral exercises in Afghanistan and Crimea under almost similar conditions, international law is actually a tool for major powers to shape global opinion and behavior in favor of their interests. Again the impossibility of a consensus amongst countries to agree to a global institution which would interpret international law dispassionately is one reason. The difference in values, cultures and interests of different countries constitute another problem.

The Crimean and Afghanistan examples show that the Muslim World cannot rely on international law and international institutions for protecting their interests. The international law as it exists today is nothing but a tool of the West which exploited the post World War 2 balance of power in its favor to develop a system which protects its interests. This does not mean that Muslims should not play an effective role at a global level rather how and through what institutions should they approach international relations is what needs to be debated. If history is any guide, it was through the institution of the caliphate that the Ummah had a strong and effective voice at the international level where it was able to muster enough economic, political and military might through the institution of the caliphate to shape global opinion and behavior to protect her interests.

Written for the Central Media Office of Hizb ut-Tahrir by

Mueez Mubeen, Member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Pakistan