How do Russians see international law?

Russian Honor Guard (Pixabay)
3/5/2015 10:15 AM
Category: International

Russia’s recent use of the language of international law has been carried by the idea that it represents a distinct ‘civilization’ and is no longer a part of ‘Europe’, writes Lauri Mälksoo, director of the Estonian foreign Policy Institute, in Oxford University Press's blog.

"Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a watershed in international relations because with this act, Moscow challenged the post-Cold War international order. Yet what has been fascinating is that over the last few years, Russia’s President and Foreign Minister have repeatedly referred to ‘international law’ as one of Russia’s guiding foreign policy principles," Mälksoo writes in the Academic Insights for the Thinking World blog by UOP.

Mälksoo argues that the guiding principles and rationale behind Russia's use and understanding of international law are very different from that of the West, because of the aspects such as how its civilization is constructed and how it places in the scale of democracy versus authoritarianism.

"Moreover, a country’s approach to international law reflects its domestic concepts of law and the relationship between the government and the individual. If a country’s legal culture has been criticized as ‘nihilist’ by its own leaders, contradictions in its international legal arguments should not surprise us so much. If law is a means rather than high societal value in itself, it is not so awkward to use contradicting arguments," Mälksoo says.

He adds: "The main difference between Russian and Western approaches to international law is an axiological one; it concerns the question of which values in international order are prioritized and which ones are secondary. In Russia, ideas emphasizing state sovereignty rather than human rights, not to speak of democracy, are constantly reflected in the state practice. Russia’s record in the European Court of Human Rights has clearly been among the weakest, and more importantly, problems have been of a systemic, not accidental nature. But Russia has also been an under-performer in international investment law because it has rejected the idea that the capital recipient state and the foreign investor might settle their dispute in binding investor-state arbitration – a practice that has become standard in the West."

"Altogether, the West has made a mistake over the last decade of failing to pay enough attention to what the Russians thought about international law and order. Moreover, the West wasn’t concerned enough about the potential precedent value of the use of military force against Yugoslavia (1999) and Iraq (2003); Moscow in turn has used these conflicts as a pretext for using military force itself."

"The general ramifications in public international law has put the whole UN system in serious turmoil. A lot is at stake. In order to make realistic policy choices regarding challengers to international law (like Russia), a sense of from where all major players historically and normatively come is urgently needed. Perhaps then it will be possible to take other nations outside the West in the way that they actually are, not how we would like them to be."

You can read the full text here.

Lauri Mälksoo is Professor of International Law at the University of Tartu and director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank based in Tallinn. He is also member of the executive board of the European Society of International Law and youngest member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences.


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