Trump’s lifting of sanctions on Russia wouldn’t do harm
KAMAL MAKILI-ALIYEV*The possibility of President Donald Trump’s decision to lift some sanctions that were imposed on Russia has created some concern in both the media and among experts and even sparked arguments that such a course of action may affect international law enforcement in the most negative way. While there is some truth to that, the situation is much more complicated when it comes to the real enforcement of international law on a global scale.
Indeed, when you impose sanctions on a state for violations of international law, they should serve as an instrument to make that state comply with the rules and norms of international law. That much is true.
However, it is rarely explained in the media why the United States decided to impose sanctions on Russia unilaterally – although its lead was followed by some allies in Europe. The fact of the matter is that a lot of norms in contemporary international law can be found in the Charter of the United Nations, one of the grounding documents of the world order we live in right now.
All members of the U.N. are bound by the norms that are embedded in the charter and agree to follow these norms on an international level. The charter established the U.N. Security Council, which is charged with the maintenance of international peace and security. This body consists of permanent and non-permanent members. The latter vary based on specific procedure, while the former have remained permanent members of the Security Council basically since the end of World War II. Conflict situations between states (such as between Russia and Ukraine) fall under the jurisdiction of the Security Council, which has powers to impose sanctions based on the decisions of its members. This is a legitimate procedure on how the international community makes decisions, in that the breach of international law by a state should be treated with sanctions of an economic, military or other character based on globally accepted norms of international law.
The question then arises, why didn’t the U.S. choose the same path to legitimize the sanctions against Russia through the U.N. with the support of the international community? The simple fact is that decisions of the Security Council can be vetoed by any of its permanent members, and one member is Russia. This brings us to the point that the U.S. was unable to try and uphold international law through customary procedure.
The U.S. then proceeded with unilateral sanctions against Russia, which is not forbidden by international law.
However, when the U.S. acts unilaterally, it means that it is a political decision of the government of the U.S., not of the international community. Moreover, the enforcement of any law (including international law) is effective and has a desired effect only if it is applied to all the subjects of the law equally, without discrimination. Simply put, law should be equal for everybody – and hence the importance of collective decisions as represented by the procedures at the U.N.
The sad fact is that the U.S. does not equally apply the same rules and actions to all states when it comes to international law. The stark example is Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent regions of Azerbaijan. This occupation has been noted in multiple international legal documents and even in the decision of international judicial bodies that work specifically with international law. Nonetheless, the U.S. has not recognized Armenia as an aggressor state and has not imposed any sanctions on it despite the fact that this situation has been protracted since the early 1990s. On the other hand, the U.S. has imposed sanctions against Russia with practically no international legal documents or decisions from international organizations to support them while ignoring the same situation in Russia’s neighborhood.
If the U.S. can impose sanctions on a nuclear power and permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, it is obvious that it can do so in regards to Armenia. That then brings us to the conclusion that the point of the sanctions is not to uphold international law and its principles, but to take steps in the international arena that would reflect discontent with an adversary. Thus, international law would not suffer from a partial or even total lifting of the sanctions imposed on Russia because international law was not originally the point of the sanctions in the first place.
Quite frankly, the sanctions have proven to be ineffective toward Russia anyway, as it has not changed Moscow’s position on the situation in Ukraine and has yet to produce any other effect desired by the U.S.
*Dr. Kamal Makili-Aliyev is an independent analyst and scholar specializing in international relations, armed conflicts, security and defense. He previously worked as a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies (sam.az) as an expert on US foreign policy.