The International Court of Justice on Wednesday ordered Russia to stop all military actions in Ukraine tied to its February invasion of the country, and to revoke its claim that Ukrainian citizens requested Russia’s military support.
In a 13-2 ruling, the court found it had jurisdiction over Ukraine’s allegations that Russia falsely accused Ukraine of genocide to justify waging war on the former member of the Soviet Union. The court's judges voted 13-2 on the ruling.
“The court is profoundly concerned about the use of force by the Russian Federation in Ukraine, which raises very serious issues of international law,” ICJ president Joan Donoghue said Wednesday during the announcement of the court’s decision.
Donoghue emphasized that the court took into account Ukraine’s “extremely vulnerable” civilian population, and “significant material damage” to property caused by Russia’s invasion.
“Many persons have no access to the most basic foodstuffs, potable water, electricity, essential medicines, or heating. A very large number of people are attempting to flee from the most affected cities, under extremely insecure conditions,” she said.
While the order will likely have political consequences for Russia, experts say it will do little to force Russia’s retreat.
The emergency request reveals the multitude of challenges that Ukraine faces as it tries to fend off Russia, which invaded on Feb. 24 and prompted Western nations to impose harsh economic sanctions against President Vladimir Putin's regime. While the international court has no power to enforce its own order, Ukrainian officials nonetheless moved forward with the legal claim.
"Here, there's nothing really that the court can do to enforce its own order," Milena Sterio, professor of international law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, said prior to the court’s ruling.
But, she added, "The court's order would carry a lot of weight in terms of further tarnishing the Russian reputation...it would add to the political and diplomatic pressure that's mounting against Russia."
In its application to the court — an emergency request to stop irreparable harm — Ukraine asked the court to order Russia to immediately suspend military operations in Ukraine, to cease planning further operations, and to require Russia to file periodic compliance reports. So far, Russia’s representatives have neither answered Ukraine’s claims, nor participated in the court’s proceedings.
The court declined to grant Ukraine’s request to direct Russia to file compliance reports.
“Even if Russia refuses to comply, the court’s judgment stands against it for the world to see,” Rebecca Hamilton, associate professor of law at American University, explained, prior to the ruling. “If decisions like this can penetrate through his lies, that will begin to undermine his power.”
Hamilton anticipates Russia to ignore the court’s ruling. Nonetheless, she says, other world leaders will take the decision into account.
“Just because President Vladimir Putin ignores international law does not mean that the law goes away,” she said. “The court’s decision can and will be used by those working diplomatic channels to try to bring an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Before the ruling, Sterio said she expected the court to grant at least some of Ukraine’s requests because it would be politically difficult for the court to rule against a country that's currently being invaded on false pretenses. Still, she raised questions about the strength of Ukraine's broader claims involving Russia's repeated assertions that Ukraine is killing its own people.
Ukraine, she explained, has made a “clever” argument under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Both Ukraine and Russia are parties to the treaty, which gives the court jurisdiction over cases between member states that allege that one state is committing acts of genocide against another. However, Ukraine’s argument doesn’t make that claim.
“No matter how horrible and horrific the invasion is, there's very little evidence that Russian troops are actually committing genocide,” Sterio said. To get around that, Ukraine argued that Russia must stop tarnishing Ukraine’s reputation by claiming that Ukraine is committing genocide.
Donoghue noted the unsettled jurisdictional issue saying that at the current emergency stage, the court “need not satisfy itself in a definitive manner that it has jurisdiction...” The main issues raised by Ukraine’s allegations, she said, could be properly addressed if the case moves forward.
“This is a horrible lie. Putin lies, and Ukrainians, our citizens, die,” Anton Korynevych, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s envoy to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, told the court during arguments on March 7. “With its false claim of genocide, Russia uses one pillar of modern international legal order to destroy the other.”