During a regular meeting of Democracy Seminar, the worldwide committee of democratic correspondence, last Thursday morning, (February 24th), we discussed the unfolding crisis in Ukraine and agreed to write up and share our quick responses from our different locations. Soon after we received this response from our Czech colleague in Germany, Petra Gümplová, who works in the field of international political theory and specializes on sovereignty, rights to natural resources, and international law.
As the reality sinks in and as it becomes obvious what is happening in Ukraine, let us please be absolutely clear about what kind of interstate act Russia’s invasion is. It is a territorial conquest of a sovereign state by a military force. It is not just a violation of territorial integrity; it is aimed at an annihilation of sovereignty of an independent legitimate state by an aggressor state. There is now ample evidence that Russia’s attack is clearly aimed at the elimination of the very existence of Ukraine as a state. It is unprovoked, uninvited, unjustifiable on any possible moral or legal grounds (genocide, human rights and jus cogens norms violations, ethnic cleansing). I flatly and categorically refuse to entertain any idea of this being an understandable, or perhaps even justifiable, response to a ‘provocation’.
There are other kinds of interventions in the internal affairs of a state by another state by more or less coercive means and of course modern history is replete with them – assisted military coups, forcible regime changes, support for terrorist or irredentist or separatist groups, economic coercion (embargos, sanctions, boycotts, forced trade monopolies), diplomatic interventions, and recently hybrid warfare, cyberattacks, massive spread of desinformation etc.).
But this is the annihilation of a state by military force and it is the most primitive, barbaric act and the most aggressive way to pursue foreign policy. It is the very end of the power spectrum – power in its pure arbitrariness and as a sheer physical force and violence, without any trace of authority, legitimacy, justifiability.
Sadly, this extremely primitive way of conducting international relations has been with us for much of human history. It crystallized as a distinct foreign policy tool in the era of colonialism which was after all initiated by the Spanish conquest of the distant kingdoms in Americas by a brutal military campaign which wiped out entire indigenous civilizations along with their cities, lands and other material worlds from the surface of the earth. Colonialism globalized conquest, made it the main way to pursue ‘national interests’ and a necessary instrument to manage geopolitical competition. It made it a go-to instrument of economic policy – rights to conquer territories by military means were delegated to private trading companies seeking to secure exclusive, monopolistic trading relations and access to goods, markets, and highly valuable natural resources (they were granted rights to “make war and peace in any place of trade”).
Conquests dominate modern history. The development of international law from the 16th century onwards can, in fact, be described as concerned mainly with the regularization and legalization of the right of territorial conquest. A number of rules – the distribution of rights of sovereignty to some states and the denial of this international legal status to (“backward”) others, the recognition of the title to acquired territory not on the basis of justifiability but on the basis of the mere ability to conquer it, keep it and control it effectively – were developed, along with a number of doctrines of justification (natural law, just war, civilization, protection and more). These rules facilitated the use of territorial conquest and its becoming one of the most frequently employed methods of conducting interstate relations and pursuing national interests, both in colonial and imperial contexts but also in the intra-European context, until and leading up to the Second World War.
The practices and the histories of conquering itself have to be considered humanity’s most shameful moments, in my view human societies at their worst. In the early days of the colonial era, it was considered permissible during the war of conquest to kill civilians including women, children, and elderly, to enslave populations, to completely destroy property or any other valuable assets and artifacts and plunder resources (this is Grotius, by the way). There were attempts later on to limit the purported ‘rights’ of a conqueror, both by theorists and in the war making practice. But wars are impossible to make less barbaric and destructive. Interstate wars are inextricably connected to most serious injustices – war crimes such as exterminations, persecution, extrajudicial killing, taking prisoners of war and hostages, torture, sexual violence but also profound harms and rights violations like forced displacement and fleeing, loss of home and property, and a complete destruction of life plans and prospects.
This is the reason why outlawing the aggressive use of force against another state after WWII has to be seen as one of the most momentous and unique achievements of postwar international law, an attempt – a relatively successful attempt, at that – to make a break with this horrible past world which did not recognize equal rights of collectives and individuals, did not value peace, legitimized imperial interests and imperial domination, and recognized pure power as a source of law. It has to be enforced and protected, at any cost. Because in the broader context of humankind and the world as a plurality of peoples, it really is the ultimate crime.