At the height of the Soviet empire, the rule of law enjoyed little favor among apparatchiks in power. Arthur Koestler captured the point for English-speaking audiences in his ice-cold novel Darkness at Noon, describing a defendant whose crimes had to be concocted and confessed in order to purge anti-Soviet sentiment. Human rights (and the rule of law) were seen as bourgeois artifacts.
The intimacy of Koestler’s story added to its power, for it was modeled on the demise of Lenin’s own revolutionary protégé, Grigory Zinoniev, abruptly demoted to a non-person and condemned as an enemy of the state. Many tens of thousands of dissidents in the Soviet empire met the same fate in Gulags and psychiatric hospitals. Even now, in the stalls of Moscow’s capitalist bazaars, it is considered chancy and unwise to inquire about the demise and burial place of grandparents and parents who disappeared during a century of Soviet power.
The fall of communism has made little difference in this. The wish-list of Russian intelligence operatives does not yet include the rule of law. Nor is there any surprise in the tactics chosen by former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, now president of Russia, in his project to keep his Ukrainian neighbors safely in the undertow of paralytic post-Communism. The tactics may not comport with the laws of war, much less the norms of democracy and peace, but that is not a matter of concern in the Kremlin.
Yet a large gulp of vodka—and a wistful toast to the rule of law—is needed before facing the callow July 17 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the Ukraine. The Buk-M1 surface-to-air missile used by Russian-backed dissidents to kill 298 people was apparently supplied by Moscow to the Donetsk rebels. Inventory control may not be a Communist specialty, either in morals or materiel.
Torpedoing a civilian aircraft and dooming its passenger list of noncombatant civilians, including dozens of world-famous medical experts, has crossed a red line. Yet even now, neither Moscow nor its followers have offered any convincing story of how the civilian flight was targeted. Regardless of the political divisions in a riven country, it remains a fundamental tenet of the law of war—applicable both in civil wars and international conflicts—that no civilian person or civilian object can be deliberately destroyed, and that undue risks of collateral damage are forbidden. War is to be fought between governments, not whole societies. If this distinction were not observed, as Thomas Hobbes fretted, violence could destroy all vestiges of civilization. The war of “every man against every man” would leave “no place for industry… no Knowledge on the face of the earth; no account of Time; no Arts, no Letters, no Society; and which is worst of all, continual Fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, nasty, brutish and short.”
Vladimir Putin has elbowed aside any recollection of the happier visage of his gemuchtlich colleague Dmitry Medvediev. In an unfettered warning at a Munich security conference some eight years ago, Mr. Putin made plain that Moscow will take what it wants. Still, one hoped that the advantages of cooperation might make sense to a country whose natural gas resources are not enough to insure a prosperous economy.
Instead, in the present moment, there is moral catastrophe. The bare-chested leader who merrily poses with Siberian tigers, Arctic bears, and a leopard for good measure, all supposedly captured by a man with a gun, now may boast of prowess in killing humans. As the political chef who stirred the pot and fueled the cauldron in Ukraine, he can add to Russia’s quarry the shoot-down of a civilian aircraft with 298 civilian passengers on board, including 80 children.
Law is quite inadequate to address such an event as “collateral damage.” Even President Putin should be able to see that the summary execution of 100 world-class AIDS medical specialists has additional consequences that stretch far beyond the ordinary tragedy of losing a ship at sea or in the air. The World Bank estimates that by 2020, Russia may have 5.4 million people with HIV-infections; other estimates are as high as 14 million. Mr. Putin has now delayed their cure.
Certainly the recent events change any casual view of air travel. After this demonstration of Russia’s effective high altitude weaponry, the overflight of any conflict zone should be seen as problematic. Vacation-bound tourists and business travelers will now quiz their travel agents about the details of a flight path and the altitudes to be maintained by aircraft. And there is a market niche for a new Jane’s guide to anti-aircraft weapons.
So the question remains, how to treat the catastrophe, and whether there is any remedy in law. There are several possibilities.
First up is the 1973 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation.
This is one of the earliest United Nations treaties designed to fight terrorism, crafted at the time when aircraft bombings were the plat du jour among some militant groups. The Russian Federation, the Ukraine, and the Netherlands (as well as the United States) have joined the 1973 Civil Aviation Convention, and each is required by treaty to criminalize any act of destroying or damaging a plane, and to prosecute or extradite any offender found in its territory.
This is the same treaty that allowed the criminal prosecution of two Libyan operatives for the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 270 civilians died, including 189 Americans. Application of the 1973 aircraft bombing treaty would also create a ready-made occasion to address the claims of the separatists, settling the question of whether Donetsk has any recognizable claim of independence from the Ukraine’s government in Kiev and its treaty obligations.
Next up is the International Criminal Court (“ICC”), a tribunal established in The Hague on July 1, 2002, and presently open for business.
Ukraine has not yet joined the Rome Treaty as an ICC member state. But the framers of the Rome statute included an unusual and capacious jurisdictional rule. Article 12(3) of the Rome Treaty allows a country to join retrospectively—even after a crime has occurred—and to “accept the exercise of jurisdiction by the Court with respect to the crime in question.”
Thus, the Ukraine could file a declaration with the Hague criminal court that allows the international criminal prosecution of any person taking part in the Donetsk bombing, including any person—whether military, civilian, or office-holder—who carried out or aided and abetted that criminal act. While jurisdiction to hear a case is not often retrospective, the norms enforced by the court are rock solid. Under the terms of the Rome Treaty, any operative found to have taken part would be criminally liable.
The United States remains leery of any expansive use of ICC jurisdiction, not least because we have troops deployed all over the world for peacekeeping and other security missions. But aircraft bombing is an early example of a crime warranting universal jurisdiction, seem as barbaric and heinous by all countries of the world, and Washington has gradually warmed to the court as its performance has been gauged over the last 12 years.
Arresting a foreign official or fleeing perpetrator is a tricky matter, and there is cooperation (though no honor) among thieves and thugs. But as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has discovered, after the massacres by the state-backed Janjaweed militia, a looming international criminal case can limit one’s choice of airports and destinations, and sometimes aircraft do make extra landings, with gendarmes waiting on the runway.
And then there is civil liability for damages. In 1986, the International Court of Justice rendered a verdict in the Nicaragua case against the United States, for Washington’s support of the Contra guerrillas. One does not have to agree with the court’s disputed fact-finding (various Nicaraguan affidavits were later thought to be false). But the jurisprudential fact remains that if a foreign government aids and abets a protégé state or rebel movement in a tactic forbidden under the law of war—and shooting down a civilian aircraft would rank high on the list—then the sponsor state may itself face civil liability and monetary payments of hundreds of millions of dollars. The World Court would have jurisdiction over a claim for civil damages under the 1973 Civil Aviation Convention.
One of the ironies of the present moment is that Mother Russia was once a great champion of international law. The evidence is found in the world-famous texts of the 1899 and 1907 Hague conventions, setting out the tenets of humanitarian law and the proper conduct of war. These seminal texts were championed by Czar Nicholas and his legal advisor Friedrich Martens. There were other nineteenth century reformers, to be sure, including Henri Dunant of Switzerland and Francis Lieber of the United States. But the Russian czar and his legal advisor boldly proclaimed that the violence and brutality of war should have limits.
The Carnegie Peace Palace in The Hague, where the International Court of Justice still convenes to hear its cases, is graced by a marble statue of Friedrich Martens, and for good reason. A liberal Russian tradition predates Moscow’s long romance with Communism, and is worthy of pride.
It’s time for Mr. Putin to call off his dogs, and to leave the Ukraine alone.