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Russia In Violation Of UN Charter, Says International Law Expert

Destruction at port facilities in Georgian city of Poti
Destruction at port facilities in Georgian city of Poti
Despite the cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia, many Russian troops remain in Georgia, where they have been destroying Georgia's military infrastructure.

There are reports of ships being sunk, air strikes on military facilities, and destruction of equipment at military bases. Moscow seems unconcerned that it is apparently violating the terms of the agreement it signed. But is it doing more than just breaking its promise?

RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher put this question to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, the former president of the American Society of International Law, and a member of the National War Powers Commission.

RFE/RL: You've read the reports of what's happening in Georgia at the hands of the Russian military. Is this a violation of international law?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: It depends on how you see what [the Russian military] is doing. To the extent that it has moved beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia into Georgia proper, and that it is staying there -- if the reports of its attacks on parts of Georgia that have nothing to do with those enclaves are true -- then at some point this crosses into simple aggression against another country, which is a violation of the UN Charter. It is using force against the political independence and territorial integrity of another state.

So there's going to be a huge debate about at what point does it cross that line, because to the extent it was responding to a first use of force in an area where it had peacekeepers, then that looks more like self-defense or protection of nationals, or even defense of an internationally agreed force. And that certainly, is arguably legal -- the initial response is arguably legal.

But the further we move from the Georgian use of force and the Russian response to Russia "teaching Georgia a lesson" -- which is what this certainly looks like -- that is aggression. That is the illegal use of force against the territorial sovereignty and political independence of another state, and that's a violation of Article 24 of the UN Charter.

RFE/RL: What about the cease-fire Russia signed? Is its violation of that agreement also illegal? This week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said, "We cannot accept this kind of blindness, not accepting international law." Is he referring to the UN Charter or the cease-fire?

Slaughter: I think he must be referring to the UN Charter. The cease-fire agreement -- it's not a treaty, it's not a binding legal obligation under international law in the normal sense we think of international obligations. Russia's put its word on the line. But it doesn't have a full legal weight in the same sense that, say, the UN Charter does or violating a peace treaty that then is ratified and goes through the normal procedures of making an agreement legal.

In international law, you can sign a memorandum of understanding with another country. That has no legal standing. That's an agreement. And it might bind the executive; it might bind the parties who signed to it, but not as a legal matter.

So in my view, the violation of international law is that Russia is now aggressively using force against another state and its failure to live up to these agreements in many ways looks like confirmation that it's doing something it shouldn't be doing.

No Kosovo 'Precedent'

RFE/RL: Would that also apply to Russia's apparent decision to remain in Georgia, in what it is calling a "buffer zone" just outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

Slaughter: That's a violation also. It is still Georgian territory although it was de facto not being ruled by Georgia, and so there's a reason Georgian peacekeepers were there to begin with because that's a much more complicated question of rights of self-determination, and de facto control, and what international law requires is that the solution be nonviolent. But international law does not support breakaway groups declaring their own states, in general.

That's one reason Kosovo's a very complicated issue and that's why the Russians argued that recognizing Kosovo was illegal and they're going to say, "Well, if Kosovo could be independent and you recognized Kosovo's independence, then why can't we recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as being independent? This is no different."

RFE/RL: Is this different?

Slaughter: There are differences. The aggression against Kosovo was very different than Georgia sending troops into South Ossetia, and there was a long history of human rights violations and a clear pattern of ethnic cleansing, given what had happened in other former Yugoslavian states. Kosovo was obviously also recognized as independent but only as a prerequisite to its ultimately becoming a member of the EU, rather than having another state take it over. That's a big difference.

Still, it's a complicated argument and if the Russians were simply keeping their peacekeepers in South Ossetia and Abkhazia that would be fine. To the extent Georgia did send its troops in, and it did, then there is some argument for making sure that won't happen again. What looks more likely is that this buffer zone is actually a prelude to absorbing those territories into Russian territory, and then that's conquering a territory that at least some of the people in that territory don't want to be part of Russia.

RFE/RL: Are there modern precedents for what Russia is doing: continuing an occupation and aggression after a cease-fire agreement has been reached?

Slaughter: If you go back to the war in the former Yugoslavia, there were cease-fires reached and they collapsed. So there's nothing new about a cease-fire being reached and then collapsing, it happens in conflicts all over the world. And what is different here is that [French] President [Nicolas] Sarkozy is acting on behalf of the EU, the United States has been involved, and they're letting the Russians know that, again, whatever happened initially, what is happening now is unacceptable, it is a violation of international law and there will be consequences.

RFE/RL: How likely is Russia to accept the U.S. charge that it is violating international law, when the United States itself has been accused of doing the same thing with its 2003 invasion of Iraq?

Slaughter: From the Russian point of view, the Russians could certainly point out that the United States has used force without the approval of the UN Security Council against another nation, as well. And this is one of the reasons that many people, including me, argued at the time [that] if we were going to go into Iraq we had to go into Iraq with the UN's approval. One of the reasons is what looks like sauce for the goose can be sauce for the gander.

RFE/RL: I think Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has already made that argument.

Slaughter: I'm certain he has. As a matter of law, if you say, "Look, you have pledged under the UN charter that you will not use force except in self-defense without the approval of the United Nations," and you do that, it's very hard for you to say, "Yes, but it's different now."

Crisis In Georgia

Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.

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