Mar 31, 2014
This article is from the March 28th issue of Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.
During the current standoff between Russia and the West over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, one expression in particular cropped up again and again in the declarations of Western European and U.S. politicians and media: the “respect for international law.”
Representing the most powerful government in the world, Obama started the ball rolling by proclaiming that: “The proposed referendum on Crimea [on its reattachment to Russia] … would violate international law.” On behalf of second-rate powers like France, Germany, and Great Britain, heads of state Hollande, Merkel, and Cameron called it an “illegal and illegitimate referendum.” Then, after the final tally revealed that the large majority of the Crimean population found it in fact perfectly legitimate to rejoin Russia, they changed their refrain to: “The absorption into the Russian Federation is, in our firm opinion, … against international law,” to cite one speech by the German Chancellor Merkel.
She and her colleagues want above all to persuade their respective countries that the imperialist powers are in the right when they base what is legal and legitimate on what accords with their own interests.
In fact, “international law” is just that: their own law. This law is nothing but the codification of the law of “might makes right” by the United Nations and other organizations in which the big powers dominate. In the case of an unresolved rivalry between the bandits who govern the world, they are forced to make a compromise that becomes this “law.”
In all of this, none of the big powers take account of the right of populations to govern themselves.
Accordingly, the secession of Crimea, even when sanctioned by 97% of all voters, counts for nothing in the field of international law because Ukraine (with which Crimea is financially linked) is governed by supporters of the European Union and the United States. On the contrary, the Western powers considered the secession of the former Serbian province of Kosovo in 2008 perfectly legitimate in terms of international law, since they supported Kosovo against the Serbian government in Belgrade, against which they had fought after the breakup of Yugoslavia.
It is also worth remembering the 19th and 20th centuries, when France and England forcibly carved immense empires from the flesh of the entire populations of Africa, Asia, and other regions. They aimed to establish an internationally recognized system of pillage by which each colonial power had exclusive rights over its colonies and the hundreds of millions of people living in them.
However, even after decolonization, international law served to cover over the worst crimes against populations. From the Korean War waged by the United States and its allies in the 1950s to the recent French interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic, it is difficult to even count the military operations of the imperialist powers which their international laws have justified under the command of the UN, this modern “league of brigands,” as Lenin described the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations.
Even in rare cases like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which hundreds of U.N. resolutions have affirmed and reaffirmed Palestinians' right to an independent state and even condemned Israel's military occupation of Palestine for more than half a century, what has “international law” changed? The United States financially and militarily supports Israel, making it the enforcer of imperialist order in the region. This allows Israel to essentially ignore the rights of Palestinians and even the UN resolutions full of phrases about “international law.” These resolutions are empty precisely because this law is that of the big powers, and they interpret it according only to their own interests.