A Series of Leiden Law Blogs on the Russian aggression in Ukraine

A Series of Leiden Law Blogs on the Russian aggression in Ukraine

Europe is shocked, the world is shocked, by the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the human suffering as a result of Russia’s flagrant violation of key rules of international law.

Research and teaching at Leiden Law School is about law and justice. At a time when the rule of power has replaced the rule of law at the eastern border of the EU, we may ask ourselves whether we have been naive, whether this aggression is a geopolitical reality check. Is life still ‘nasty, brutish and short’, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in the 17th century? Is it wrong to think that the international community has advanced, that there is a beginning of the rule of law in international relations, counterbalancing the rule of power? Former President Yusuf of the International Court of Justice stated in 2020 that the UN Charter “laid the foundations of the rule of law at the international level”. Are these foundations now undermined?

A Faculty meeting was therefore organized on Wednesday 9 March, to discuss the war in Ukraine. Experts and students presented their views in the Lorenz lecture hall which was packed with staff and students. Our Dean Joanne van der Leun opened the meeting with some introductory words. The event was not livestreamed or recorded. It was therefore decided to make the presentations also available via the Leiden Law Blog. In order not to lose time, the presentations have been largely kept in their original format as presentations for the Faculty meeting, and have not been transformed to the regular blog format. Below, I will briefly introduce the series and mention the blogs that will be published in the coming days.


During and after World War II, an international order was built with rules and international organizations to prevent the things that are happening now in Ukraine. The United Nations was established as a successor to the League of Nations. The collective security system of the League had a decentralized nature, with limited powers for the League’s Council that could only take decisions unanimously. The UN’s collective security system is fundamentally different, much more centralized. The Security Council has unprecedented supranational enforcement powers. Although its decisions are taken by majority vote, it is required that its five permanent members do not vote against proposed resolutions. In addition, the UN Charter also created a framework for international social and economic cooperation and for human rights. Separate international organizations such as IMF, World Bank, ILO, FAO, UNESCO and others were connected to the UN as specialized agencies. In later decades, other organizations such as the Chemical Weapons Organization (OPCW), the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court were also brought into relationship with the UN. Underlying this ‘superstructure’ of international cooperation is the idea that it is in the common interest in the current era of globalization and interdependence to cooperate within such permanent frameworks. Bringing states and populations closer together should promote international peace and justice.

This current post-World War II order is now shaking to its foundations. Not for the first time; there have been crises before, from Korea, Suez, Cuba and Vietnam long ago, to the Iraq and Yugoslav wars, the Rwanda and Srebrenica genocides, 9/11 and its aftermath, and the wars in Libya and Syria. The war in Ukraine is the most recent example of blunt aggression, notably by one of the superpowers, resulting in immense human suffering. So far, the international community has shown remarkable unity in its reaction to the Russian invasion. Some international organizations have suspended cooperation with Russia, others have condemned the invasion and are considering measures against Russia.

In this international order, there is a key role for the superpowers. If they no longer support this order, or violate its basic rules, the system cannot work. As President Truman stated at the adoption of the UN Charter in June 1945: ‘by their own example the strong nations of the world should lead the way to international justice. That principle of justice is the foundation stone of this Charter’. Moreover, the right of veto makes it impossible for the Security Council to act against one of the permanent members. From the outset, this has been an inherent limitation of the UN system of collective security, for which the Ukrainian people are now paying the price. The question now is whether and, if so, to what extent other UN bodies (the General Assembly, the International Court of Justice) can fill some of the gaps. The larger international infrastructure of international rules and organizations has not been able to prevent the Russian aggression. It now remains to be seen whether it can contribute to bringing it to an end.


The UN Charter proclaims in its first sentence that the peoples of the United Nations are determined ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. At the Faculty meeting on 9 March, and in this series of blogs, representatives of these different generations have given and will give their views on the war in Ukraine, based on a variety of personal and professional perspectives.

The next blog in this series is by Veronika Yefremova from Ukraine, a PhD candidate in European law at our Faculty. Further blogs will be by Ferdinand Feldbrugge (emeritus professor of Russian law and Eastern European law), Nico Schrijver (focus on the UN), Rick Lawson (focus on the Council of Europe), Cecily Rose (ICJ) and Carsten Stahn (ICC).

The war in Ukraine affects in different ways all or most of the specialized areas of law in which we conduct research and teach at Leiden Law School. The Leiden Law Blog welcomes further blogs in this series. How to contribute.


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