Inter arma silent leges : the law falls silent when war breaks out. The war in Ukraine illustrates with brutal clarity the truth of this old Latin maxim: the whole body of international law is powerless in the face of what is denounced as Russian aggression, while the international structures which were specifically created to prevent countries from invading other countries are unable to do so, in the first place the United Nations. Russia being a permanent member of the Security Council, her war cannot be condemned any more than can the wars waged by other permanent members in recent years, notably the USA, Britain and France.
The Ukraine war also blows out of the water the old globalist dream that commerce will lead to peace. This idea stretches at least as far back as the 17th century and Emeric Crucé’s 1623 proposal to create “une paix générale et la liberté du commerce par tout le monde”; it was famously espoused by Sir Norman Angell in his The Great Illusion of 1913, a book which alleged that war will disappear because it makes no economic sense and for which the author was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. Now, with the Western sanctions against Russia, after 30 years of energetic globalization which was supposed to hasten the end of history, commerce has been turned from a vector of peace into an instrument of war. The US-EU economic sanctions are intended to strangle the Russian economy to death.
Yet in spite of these obvious facts, the world refuses to draw the obvious conclusion that neither law nor commerce can stop war. That conclusion should not have to be reached only after bloodshed, for it is the inescapable answer to the oldest question in political philosophy: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians themselves? Whatever mechanism you set up to enforce a rule cannot be constrained by itself. Sovereignty is legally unimpeachable because the legal system is sustained by something outside it, namely the existence of the state which enforces it.
Law therefore cannot be dissociated from power and so war can be countered only by war. This has been understood for a long time by the most perceptive statesmen. The British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, told the House of Lords in 1887, “International Law has not any existence in the sense in which the term “law” is usually understood. It depends generally upon the prejudices of writers of text-books. It can be enforced by no tribunal, and therefore to apply to it the term “law” is to some extent misleading.”
It is too much to hope that the world will respond to the Ukraine war by dissolving all the international institutions designed to preserve peace, starting with the UN and the EU. These have both metastasized into bloated and self-adulatory echo-chambers, breeding grounds of ridiculous political correctness. On the other hand, the descent of the Western powers into gross illegality should be a matter of great concern to Western citizens themselves. The Russians can take care of themselves but if our own rulers abuse the rules, then we are all in danger.
The Covid scam blew apart the rule of law in countries which for centuries have embodied it. From one day to the next, liberties which had been considered absolute were dissolved at the stroke of a pen. The fact that this was not only possible but actually welcomed by a majority of the population in most Western states showed how sick our societies had become: individual liberty was viewed no longer as a precious asset to be jealously guarded, including because it is a social good, but became instead a danger.
As the world has slid seamlessly from the Corona crisis to the Ukraine crisis – one is tempted to call it Ukrona – the principles of the rule of law which Western countries believed inviolate have been violated. Government ministers can now seize property at a whim, as they have proudly done with numerous Russian businessmen and even with Russia’s sovereign funds, yet property rights are supposed to be the cornerstone of the rule of law. Media outlets have been illegally censored, for instance by the European Commission. If the executive can seize someone’s property, or censor a news agency, without passing through any judicial procedure, as is now happening, then we live under dictatorship. Martin Niemöller’s famous remarks apply to all those who think these things can happen only to foreign oligarchs or TV stations.
It is especially galling to see organisations devoted to human rights violating human rights. On 7 April, the UN General Assembly voted to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, just as it had voted to expel Libya from the same body in 2011. As in 2011 with Libya, against which the accusations were false, the General Assembly did so without any judicial procedure to verify the truth of the accusations, in this case that Russia committed war crimes in Bucha, and still less to prove that Russia is guilty of “systematic” violations of human rights, as the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution which created the Human Rights Council requires it must. On the contrary, even though the UN Secretary-General has called for an investigation into Bucha (just as Russia called for a discussion of it in the Security Council, a request rejected by Britain), and even though Ukraine has appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate the events there, the punishment has been decided and handed down without bothering to wait for the investigations even to start. As the Queen of Hearts said, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!”
This is the same dictatorship as that deployed by the EU’s so-called Human Rights Mechanism adopted in December 2020, which allows persons accused of human rights violations to be punished without any judicial procedure to prove their guilt, and without according them any right of defence. Moreover, the mechanism was set up by an executive vote, not by a law, whereas criminal jurisdictions cannot, according to international human rights law, be created by executive fiat but must instead be based on a legislative act (Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). So the EU and the UN human rights bodies are themselves systemic violators of human rights and the rule of law.
Not only do these bodies violate the rule of law and human rights, they make matters worse. On 5 April, President Zelensky, who likes to tell everyone what he assumes they want to hear, told the Spanish parliament that his country was suffering the fate of Guernica. He should have thought more about the meaning of his historical analogy: the 1937 bombing of that Spanish village by the Germans caused Britain and other powers to bring about a policy of non-intervention which, eventually, succeeded in confining that conflict to the territory of Spain alone and not plunging the whole of Europe into conflict.
In Ukraine, the West could instead have adopted an attitude of neutrality and non-intervention which would be logical in view of its refusal to fight Russia. Instead, it has worked itself up into a lather of moral indignation over the war in Ukraine which one suspects is designed precisely to scupper the peace negotiations. This is something the Americans have liked doing ever since 1992 when they pushed the Bosnians into war against Yugoslavia. The main cause of this is the insufferable Western conviction that only it embodies the right and the good, and that Russia embodies lawlessness and barbarism. Such an attitude only makes wars worse because, as the great 18th century Swiss diplomat, Emer de Vattel, wrote, all peace treaties are a transaction. “If one had to observe the rules of exact and rigorous justice, peace would become impossible.” In other words: summum ius, summa inuria.