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In his foreign policy speech to the diplomatic corps in Moscow

In his foreign policy speech to the diplomatic corps in Moscow on 15 July, President Dmitri Medvedev made the interesting claim that the falsification of history is often a prelude to the violation of international law - something for which he implicitly attacked the West.  It is certainly true that the study of the history of the law of nations can illuminate the way it has recently been perverted.  And as it happens, that history is one in which Russia has played a key role.

Medvedev's address, and especially his call for a Europe-wide security treaty, recall the initiatives taken by Russia's last emperor, Nicholas II, the 90th anniversary of whose murder fell the following evening.  Tsar Nicholas' violent overthrow in 1917 has obscured the historical memory of his achievements, but perhaps the greatest of these was his decision, taken 110 years ago in 1898, to invite the Great Powers to attend an international peace conference.  They did so, in the capital of the Netherlands in 1899, and this, the first Hague Peace Conference, took important decisions about how to make warfare more civilised. 

It also laid the groundwork for the much fuller Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907.  Nicholas can therefore be called the founder, or at least the patron, of the international laws of war.  Many of the rules he sponsored are still in force today - although sadly some of them, especially the condemnation of aerial bombardment which was agreed in 1899 before the aeroplane had even been invented, have been quietly dropped.  The original conference's most lasting achievement was to create an international court of arbitration, the direct predecessor of the International Court of Justice which still exists in The Hague today.

However, just as Nicholas' own reign came to an end as the forces of modern warfare unleashed the tidal wave of revolution which swept three emperors from their thrones, so the Hague laws of war have now been largely eclipsed (even if they remain in force) by the laws of Geneva, passed in 1949 in the aftermath of the terrible suffering inflicted on civilians during the Second World War.  They govern the treatment of non-combatants, the sick and the wounded:  in other words, the focus is now more on victims than on combatants.

Geneva did not, though, change the underlying structure of the international system.  States continued to be regarded as legally equal and sovereign.  Since the end of the Cold War, by contrast, the Western powers - the United States in first place - have sought to destroy this structure at its conceptual core.  The doctrine of "rogue states" was invented, and the doctrine of universal human rights was abused, to justify attacks against Iraq and Yugoslavia whose regimes were presented as illegitimate because criminal.  Moreover, the Western powers arrogated to themselves the right to adjudicate international law, usurping the authority of the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice. 

When President Medvedev invokes international law, therefore, what he is defending is this key principle of sovereign statehood as the basis for the international system, and the right of the existing and legally constituted authoritative bodies to adjudicate its law.  Of course some governments abuse their sovereignty, and tyranny is certainly a bad thing.  But the proposition that one state or body of states has the legal right to judge the internal affairs of another, and to impose its judgement by force, is a recipe for chaos and constant war - vigilantism, in fact, on an international scale. 

Even worse, the dismantling of the concept of sovereignty would destroy the laws of war themselves.  The doctrine of state sovereignty underpins these laws because the rights accorded to soldiers and prisoners of war derive from the fact that they are recognised as fighting legitimately for their countries.  By contrast, the abuses committed at Guantánamo Bay, and the widespread attack on the civilian infrastructure of Yugoslavia, are the logical and inevitable consequences of wars waged against enemies who were proclaimed to be criminal in their very essence, and to have therefore no right to sovereignty.

Many of the claims made by the West in support of its interventionism - including those made to justify the recognition of Kosovo, which President Medvedev continues explicitly to oppose - have in fact been struck down in recent rulings by the International Court of Justice.  The ICJ has repeatedly affirmed the continuing validity of state sovereignty, and the illegality of judicial and military intervention in the internal affairs of other states.  Russia would do well, therefore, to lend strong support to this court as the true upholder of international law.  It is also the only truly international court because, unlike the new misleadingly named International Criminal Court whose charter the largest countries in the world have refused to sign, the ICJ's jurisdiction and powers are universally recognised by all states. 

John Laughland is Director of Studies at the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in Paris.  His book, "A History of Political Trials from Charles I to Saddam Hussein" was published by Peter Lang (Oxford) this month.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


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