Crimea’s Referendum and Secession: Why it Resembles Northern Cyprus More than Kosovo

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On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its future legal status. Reportedly, the choice to join Russia was supported by an overwhelming 95.5 per cent of all votes cast, with the turnout of 83 per cent. A day earlier, Russia vetoed a draft Security Council resolution which sought to declare the referendum as ‘having no legal validity’ and urge the international community not to recognise its results. The draft resolution was otherwise supported by 13 members of the Security Council, with China abstaining. On 17 March 2014, the Crimean parliament declared independence and applied to join Russia.  This contribution explains that while the referendum itself was not illegal in international law, the shift of territorial sovereignty would be illegal. Moreover, in the legal circumstances underlying the situation in Crimea, even the declaration of independence violated international law. As a result, the obligation to withhold recognition of the effective situation is applicable under general international law. No Chapter VII Resolution is required. This is not because international law would see territorial integrity of states as an absolute norm, but because the effective situation was created by Russia’s use or threat of force. Although parallels have been drawn to Kosovo (see the discussion in Christian Marxsen’s post) and even Scotland, in terms of international law Northern Cyprus would be a more accurate comparison.

Secession and neutrality of international law

Groups seeking independence usually present self-determination as an absolute entitlement. Conversely, states countering secession usually present territorial integrity as an absolute entitlement of states. Neither camp is right. As follows from the General Assembly’s Declaration on Principles of International Law (GA Res 2625), the Quebec case (Supreme Court of Canada) and partly also from the Kosovo Advisory Opinion (ICJ), international law is actually neutral on the question of unilateral secession. This means that unilateral secession is neither prohibited nor an entitlement. Furthermore, for the purposes of international law, it does not matter whether or not secession is explicitly prohibited under domestic law. As noted by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec case, an entity may declare independence extra-constitutionally and yet nevertheless become independent if other states are willing to recognise it (the Quebec case, para 155). This further confirms that unilateral secession unto itself does not trigger an obligation to withhold recognition. [I explain this further here].Yet states are very rarely willing to grant recognition on a widespread basis to entities seeking independence unilaterally. By holding a referendum and declaring independence, such an entity in most circumstances does something that remains legally ineffective, yet not internationally wrongful. The burden of changing the territorial status quo lies on the secession-seeking entity and this exercise is very rarely successful if the parent state does not agree. However, a declaration of independence may be given effectiveness through foreign military assistance. This is where neutrality of international law ends. International law is neutral only with respect to a declaration’s unilateral character, but not in general, where territorial illegality is attached to the situation.

When are declarations of independence illegal?

Territorial illegality arises under a serious breach of certain fundamental norms of international law, in particular jus cogens. This was confirmed even by the ICJ in the otherwise very narrow Kosovo Advisory Opinion. To quote the Court:

“[T]he illegality attached to [some other] declarations of independence … stemmed not from the unilateral character of these declarations as such, but from the fact that they were, or would have been, connected with the unlawful use of force or other egregious violations of norms of general international law, in particular those of a peremptory character (jus cogens).” (The Kosovo Advisory Opinion, para 81).

This pronouncement of the ICJ is highly significant. The Court was otherwise heavily criticised for establishing a formalistic distinction between issuing a declaration of independence and creating a state. But here it affirmed that under some circumstances even a declaration itself may be illegal – where it tries to consolidate a situation created in violation of jus cogens. This doctrine is largely based on the practice developed with regard to Turkey’s forceful creation of Northern Cyprus, declarations of independence of Southern Rhodesia, four South African Homelands, and South Africa’s illegal presence in Namibia. There are some even older potentially relevant examples, such as Japan’s creation of Manchukuo. The territorial illegality in these circumstances was not created by the unilateral character of declarations of independence, i.e. without approval of parent states, but by the fact that these entities intended to become states as a result of illegal use of force or in pursuance of apartheid. It is true that several resolutions of UN organs called for non-recognition in these instances, but these resolutions were generally not legally binding. So, for the most part, the duty of non-recognition did not draw normative force from the Security Council’s Chapter VII powers. The duty of non-recognition rather applied under general international law. Given the norms involved, the following doctrine applies: where declaration of independence is issued in violation of jus cogens, it is illegal and other states have a duty to withhold recognition. This has been confirmed by Articles 40 and 41 of ILC Articles on State Responsibility.

The effects of independence referendums

In the Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, the ICJ confirmed that save for exceptional circumstances, any change of the legal status requires a free expression of the will of the people. But outside of colonialism, a referendum is only a necessary, not a sufficient requirement when a change of the legal status of a territory is sought. In the Quebec case, the Supreme Court of Canada reasoned that a decision in favour of secession, at best, creates an obligation on both sides to negotiate the future legal status of the territory (The Quebec case, para 91). This is still not an entitlement to secession and there is no pre-determined outcome. The central government does not enter into such negotiations with an obligation to determine the technicalities of secession. Negotiations could also lead to a new internal status of the territory, and a higher level of autonomy and self-government. As I explain elsewhere, there is a clear commitment of the UK government to accept the outcome of the independence referendum in Scotland. But this commitment goes beyond what is required by international law and Scotland does not have any implications for Crimea. In short, principles of democratic decision making do not create a right to independence.

The legal framework applied to Crimea

The general neutrality of international law means that the people of Crimea, in principle, are not precluded from holding a referendum, and even declaring independence and/or willingness to integrate with Russia. But international law does not give them a right to secession from Ukraine and/or integration with Russia. Not even the will of the people expressed at the referendum, however democratically and overwhelmingly, changes this position. International law remains neutral on this issue. In the absence of widespread international recognition, the Crimean intention would remain ineffective without Russia’s use or threat of force. For convincing arguments that Russia’s actions constitute aggression against Ukraine see here, here, and here. It is true that some Russian military presence in Crimea is legal under the Black Sea Fleet Status of Forces Agreement. But as has been demonstrated by, inter alia, Aurel Sari, current Russian activities have overstepped the boundaries of that arrangement. And even if the actual use of force were still contested, Russian activities constitute at least a threat of force, which is likewise prohibited by Article 2(4), UN Charter. This is where the neutrality of international law on declarations of independence is over. In the sense of paragraph 81, Kosovo Advisory Opinion, we are no longer talking about a unilateral declaration of independence but an attempt at secession in violation of jus cogens. This circumstance triggers Article 41, ILC Articles on State Responsibility. Foreign states are under obligation to withhold recognition. The obligation does not apply because Ukraine’s constitution would not allow secession or because there is no political approval from Kiev. It applies because Russia created an illegal territorial situation by use or threat of force. In other words, Russia created a situation legally comparable to Northern Cyprus, albeit integration rather than independence is sought here.

How is this different from Kosovo?

In 1999, NATO illegally used force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the same year, the Security Council adopted the legally-binding Resolution 1244 which created a regime of international territorial administration for Kosovo and established its governance in separation from Yugoslavia and Serbia. As I explain elsewhere, I am critical of the ICJ reasoning (though not necessarily conclusion) on why the declaration of independence of Kosovo did not violate Resolution 1244. But as far as general international law is concerned, the above quoted paragraph 81 of the Advisory Opinion at least implicitly confirms that Kosovo’s declaration of independence was not issued in violation of a peremptory norm. This can only mean that in the ICJ’s view, the declaration of independence did not follow from the 1999 use of force, but rather from the subsequent legal regime established by Resolution 1244. The Resolution thus interrupts the link between the illegal use of force in 1999 and the declaration of independence in 2008. The legal situation in Crimea is different and the change of legal status would follow directly from Russia’s (military) activities.


International law is neutral on the question of unilateral secession. But the problem in Crimea is not that secession from Ukraine was unilateral. The problem is that it was achieved by Russia’s use or at least threat of force. International law prohibits any change of legal status of a territory in violation of a peremptory norm. This is what makes declarations of independence illegal. Pursuant to Article 41 of ILC Articles on State Responsibility, foreign states are under obligation to withhold recognition. This obligation exists under general international law; no Security Council resolution is needed. Although it was integration with Russia rather than independence that was sought, the territorial illegality is reminiscent of that in Northern Cyprus and does not follow the Kosovo precedent, let alone Scotland.

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Jakob Cornides says

March 20, 2014

I think that one needs to look at the essence of what is happening, not at the mise en scène. In the case of Crimea what we are seeing is not a secession, but a conquest of Ukrainian territory by Russia. This is simply a military aggression by one state against another, nothing else.

I share the view expressed in this post that the action taken by NATO was illegal. However, one can at least argue that this action was taken under the impression of very severe human rights violations committed by the Government of the FRY against the Albanian minority. This is probably the point where the lack of similarity is most glaring: there simply is not the least evidence of any discrimination or oppression of ethnic Russians by Ukraine.

Katya Kopylova says

March 20, 2014

Dear Jure,

First of all, thank you very much for your excellent post, this is the most professional and unbiased analysis of the ‘Crimean crisis’ I have read since its outburst.

My remark, however, is more of a theoretical nature. I understand that one of your key points (correct me, if I am wrong) is that as long as a declaration of independence is not tainted with illegality (understood as its connection with the unlawful use of force or other egregious violations of norms of general international law, in particular those of a peremptory character) it is not prohibited under international law.

I have difficulty to reconcile the following two sentences:
‘The general neutrality of international law means that the people of Crimea, in principle, are not precluded from holding a referendum, and even declaring independence and/or willingness to integrate with Russia. But international law does not give them a right to secession from Ukraine and/or integration with Russia.

Let’s imagine that the Crimean declaration of independence was perfect from the legal point of view and thus valid, or not prohibited. Declaration of independence a priori cannot entitle or not entitle to a right to secession. It is an exercise of that right. A legal declaration of independence of Crimea would have been effective as of its adoption and would have sealed the secession from Ukraine. It is the right to secession that precedes the declaration and not the other way around. A declaration of independence is not intended to invite the parties concerned to negotiate, it is an evidence that the negotiations failed. I do not believe that it is intended to remain without effect either.


Miroslav Baros says

March 20, 2014

The comparison with Kosovo and specially the subsequent comment are not most fortunate in terms of clarifying the Crimean situation. The KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army), prior to the NATO intervention was engaged in terrorist activities and it was actually put on the US State Department's list of terrorist organisations. In Crimea, no single bullet was fired prior to the referendum. In my mind this seems to be a significant difference. The argument that NATO was preventing "serious human rights violations" in Kosovo because of which it had to bomb, not only military but civilian targets hundreds of miles away from Kosovo looks incongruous.
Secondly, in terms of legality of secession under international law, an issue that in itself is becoming rather irrelevant and confusing, I would suggest in the light of the Kosovo episode, one should refer to the UN Charter as well and not only to the rules developed subsequently. For example, the author relies on Article 2(4) in making the argument that Russia has used force, but there is no mention of Article 2(7) - no interference in “essentially internal matters”. Failing to make reference to Article 2(7) and examining the episode in isolation from other possible violations leads to a conclusion that Russia has indeed used force. However, the US and EU officials have clearly violated Article 2(7) by providing full support to one side to the conflict (remember cookies?!), which turned out to be a crucial and successful interference in terms of regime change.
Thirdly, that Russia made possible the referendum by the use of force baffles me more than the rest of the argument. Let us not forget that under an international agreement Russia has the right to have military presence in Crimea. In addition, there is no mention that 58% of the Crimean population are Russians. Does the author argue that a referendum could only be legal in the absence of the Russian forces, (which are, again legitimately stationed there)? Following this line of reasoning one can only conclude that the Russian military presence made the referendum illegal, but the prospect of not having one (in the absence of the Russian forces) would be perfectly acceptable because the newly self-proclaimed and unelected Ukrainian government would not have allowed one! Or to extend the principle to a more familiar environment should one argue that the British forces must leave Scotland prior to the referendum in order to legitimise the Scottish independence? This would actually make sense since the Scottish independence movement is more hostile to the "foreign" forces than the Crimean "separatists" perceive the Russian military presence in the Crimea.
I agree on one point with the author and that is that international law is neutral; it did not have any other choice unfortunately; it transformed from the enthusiastically claimed "post-ontological" era to this total helplessness.
I would therefore advocate inaction and silence as a way of dealing with these kinds of issues in the future. As Kennedy, assessing the Iraqi episode insightfully concluded we may not have much choice but to accept and live “with intellectual and emotional pendulum between commitment and cynicism inherent in the practice of international law”.

Miroslav Baros says

March 21, 2014

May I just clarify the status of the principle of non-intervention and its applicability to a single state for fear of being caught by a literal interpreter of Article 2(7). Although the principle is not mentioned as such in the UN Charter it is implicitly drawn from it as the corresponding duty to the principle of State sovereignty in Arts. 2(1) and 2(4). Without the prohibition of intervention, the principle of sovereignty would be meaningless.
The non-intervention principle proclaimed by the ICJ as part of customary international law and ius cogens (Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua Case, para. 202). It is included in almost all regional documents as well (Arts 16, 18, and 19 Charter of the Organization of American States; Art. 4 Constitutive Act of the African Union; Art. 8 Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance (Pact of the Warsaw Treaty Organization), Art. 1 (2) Charter of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and Principle VI Final Act of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 1975). The principle features prominently in every friendship or co-operation treaty between States and it applies even to international financial organisations (Art. IV Sec. 10 Articles of Agreement of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; World Bank Group). It would therefore be blizzare to argue that Article 2(7) UN Charter applie to the UN only.

RonJames1980 says

March 22, 2014

Interesting view. But fact remains that the whole idea of UNSC 1244 was that Kosovo should remain part of Serbia UNTIL THERE WAS A MUTUAL AGREED DEAL. There was not such a deal.

Jordan says

March 23, 2014

Miroslav, et al.: On its face, Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter only prohibits three types of use of force. Further Article 52 of the Charter permits "regional action" -- which distinguishes Kosovo give the NATO authroization for "regional action" while the S.C. was veto-deadlocked -- see, e.g.. [and see id. also regarding the right of revolution, self-determination, outside self-determination assistance, etc.] and [same].

Jakob Cornides says

March 23, 2014

"Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter only prohibits three types of use of force."

Huh? Sounds as if the 341 other types of use of force were all permitted.

Jordan says

March 25, 2014

Jakob: they are: (1) against the territorial integrity of a state, (2) against the political independence of a state, and (3) a use in any other manner that is inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations. UN art. 2(4). Of course, relevant purposes include those listed in arts. 1, 2, and 55, among others.

Miroslav Baros says

March 26, 2014

Oh dear this is confused! So for example a use of force to allow people with ginger hair only to enter pub wouod be legal and in accordance with Article 4(2)?