Editors Picks Law & politics

Why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not the end of the UN Charter system

Destroyed buildings in Kharkiv (Deposit Photos)

MDX legal expert Dr Giulia Pecorella explains why international courts and the UN Charter will still be crucial in peacefully resolving the conflict

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a serious violation of international law and the UN Charter. It is an act of aggression which also involves violations of international humanitarian law as civilian and protected objects have been targeted and attacked, as well as human rights law.

Some fear this is the end of the security system created by the UN Charter more than 75 years ago. This is because Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has blatantly violated the cornerstone principle of the Charter. It prohibits the use of force and only allows such military action with the express approval of the UN Security Council on the grounds of self-defence.

In so doing Russia has inevitably damaged the legitimacy of the UN Security Council as the body that according to the UN Charter has got primary responsibility in the maintenance of international peace and security.

But still, from an international law perspective, I would be more inclined to see the bright side even in such dark times as now.

Resolving the war in courts

First, while Ukraine has been under attack and used military force on the grounds of self-defence, they are still determined to rely on peaceful means such as negotiations to solve their dispute with Russia.

The Ukrainian government has moreover initiated diverse proceedings before international courts, showing a remarkable positive attitude towards what the UN Charter considers another method of solving a dispute peacefully, that is, judicial settlement.

They are relying on different courts, including the European Court of Human Rights and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as well as, they are showing great support to the investigation undergoing within the context of the International Criminal Court.

Scholars usually look at the limits of the system and the flaws of the international courts and tribunals, but I believe it is significant at this stage the Ukrainian government is still seeking to resolve their disputes through judicial settlement acting within the limits of the UN Charter.

Rescuers dismantle a destroyed residential building in Kharkiv (Deposit Photos)

At the same time, international courts have reacted very quickly, confirming they are effective and proactive means to resolve international disputes.

Moreover, States have decided to respond to the Russian aggression through acts adopted by different International organisations, including but not limited to, the Council of Europe, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council.

This is a very interesting trend that contrasts to what we have witnessed in the last decade, when international organisations and courts have been criticised as useless, biased and ineffective, and several states threatened to leave or actually left them (think about, for instance, Brexit or the Trump Administration’s attitude towards the World Health Organisation during the pandemic, or the International Criminal Court).

Second, the strong condemnation of this aggression by the international community provides further evidence to confirm that under both customary international law and the UN Charter unilateral humanitarian interventions (that is, the use of force for humanitarian reasons by a state, a group of states or an international organisation, such as NATO or the African Union) are not allowed.

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Refugees near the railway station of Lviv waiting for train to Poland (Deposit Photos)

Humanitarian intervention and self defence

In the last 20 years, because of the impact of human rights on international law, some states, including the UK, have argued in favour of using force whenever there have been claims of genocide, the use of chemical weapons against civilians, or other war crimes.

Even if a member of the UN Security Council vetoes such actions, the UK believe we should use force on the grounds of humanitarian intervention.

While the rights of the Russian minorities in Ukraine have been often cited by Putin, the reaction of the International community confirms that this won’t be a legal ground to justify the invasion.

Similar considerations could be made in relation to the grounds of so-called preventive self-defence, as it has been interpreted, for instance, within the context of the War on Terror.

In the last twenty years, the US has argued that when states are unwilling or unable to prevent attacks from terrorist groups based within their territory, the use force on the ground of self-defence is allowed, even when the threat to the security of other states is not imminent.

While the legal grounds for Russian intervention have not been clearly submitted, which is possibly another reason to condemn it, among their arguments there is also the need to prevent further threats from a militarised Ukraine. They are calling on Ukraine to demilitarise and this intervention is a way of preventing future threats.

States gets back to UN Charter

However, the way the overwhelming majority of the international community has condemned the actions by Russia shows that international law does not currently provide for a such broad exception to the prohibition to use force.

Of course, these considerations might not be sufficient to put an end to this war or the crimes committed within its context. Yet, the return of international organisations and courts for states to settle international disputes and react to violations of international law is undeniably a very positive element coming out from this hideous situation.

I am also confident that this aggression might encourage all states to reaffirm the principles of the UN Charter and reject any attempts to interpret and apply the law differently (as Russia is doing) and set dangerous precedents which could defeat a system that has survived for more than 75 years.

In this respect, international courts might also play a very significant role.

Dr Giulia Pecorella is Senior Lecturer in Law in the Department of Law and Politics, and PhD Programme Leader for Law. Her most recent work – The United States of America and the Crime of Aggression, which has been published by Routledge – is available to purchase online.

Editors Picks Social commentary

A risky business: Moderating the content on the war in Ukraine

Destroyed buildings on streets of Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 3 (Deposit Photos)

Online abuse experts from Middlesex University explain why social media content moderators have a crucial role to play after Russia invaded Ukraine

*If you are a content moderator and want to get in touch please email:

The invasion of Ukrainian by Russian forces again underlines the power and reach of big technology companies such as Meta (formerly known as Facebook), YouTube and Tik Tok. It is through their platforms that the world will learn and react to the growing crisis. They have more power than believed, wielding the ability to keep or take down content, ultimately shaping public opinion as the war progresses. Gone is their ability to remain placid or neutral in on-going global crises. These organisations are critical agents in the dissemination and transfer of (mis)information, whether that be active or passive. Their decisions can greatly influence how events are perceived, regardless of how they have truly unfolded.

The recognition of social media’s power to influence and persuade society has led to companies such as Meta and Google facing pressure from governments on all sides of the conflict to either ban or remove content they view as misleading. Russia has banned Instagram and accused Meta of being an ‘extremist’ organisation, whilst European leaders have put pressure on social media platforms to block Russian state-controlled media. Ukraine has gone so far as to appeal directly to social media companies to block their services in Russia. It is a double-edged sword: if companies do too much, it may lead to calls of censorship and blocking free speech, but doing too little may leave them open to accusations of undermining democracy and human rights.  A lot of the content published on these platforms is being generated by their users (also termed UGC or user-generated content) and is often unregulated, requiring continuous monitoring. Social media companies can partly rely on artificial intelligence (AI) to assist, but ultimately it is their content moderators (CMs) who are at the coal face in shaping how the conflict is perceived to play out. They are the ones who monitor content posted and apply their company’s rules which define what is and is not accepted. CMs or First Digital Responders as they can be known are the individuals who protect us from exposure to harmful and traumatic content.

Rescue service worker near a house destroyed by Russian rocket in Kyiv (Deposit Photos)

At the best of times, content moderators are under pressure to view and then respond to high volumes of content with accuracy. Workers whose performance dips below certain levels are at risk of losing their jobs. In the current climate, where company performance is heavily scrutinised by governments and regulatory bodies, they find themselves at the centre of highly-charged political debates. This puts pressure on companies to demonstrate their capability to police themselves, and that they can use the technology at their disposal as a force for good. However, delivering these goals is left to the frontline moderators, where the pressure to deliver is likely to be increased. Every error in moderation may result in genuine posts being removed, accounts being suspended for reasons unclear, or leave fake posts untouched, leading to the spread of misinformation and false narrative, viewed by millions.

We can assume that content moderators are currently being exposed to and overwhelmed by war footage emerging from the Ukrainian conflict. This is likely to include violent and bloody content which they will have to watch, analyse and decide whether it is genuine or part of the swathes of disinformation they will be asked to identify. This is difficult to do, especially as techniques for producing fake footage have become increasingly sophisticated. Often individuals or organisations with specialist knowledge are needed to identify fakes. Content moderators are a global workforce, often hired as contractors and paid minimum wage, and it is unfair to expect them to understand every subtle cultural differences in a complex conflict.

There will no doubt be a lag between the tsunami of content they are moderating, and the development of official policy regarding where freedom of speech and expression end, and censorship begins. This will be followed by a waiting time, whilst decisions are translated into actionable policies for content moderators. For instance, Twitch has recently announced updated policies regarding channels that spread misinformation and Facebook have instituted a temporary change in policy that allows users in some countries to post content that is usually forbidden. This is just one part of the complex process, with reports that policies are often developed in stages or adapted on the fly. In part, this is because situations evolve, and posts can be unclear, allowing for multiple interpretations of the same information. This inevitably increases the opportunity for disagreements about moderation decisions and adds to moderator uncertainty.

People hide in a metro station in Kyiv on February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion (Deposit Photos)

These imprecise processes do not help content moderators faced with reviewing content and rapid decision making. They may find they are left to carry out their tasks with little official guidance and support, while always thinking about the threat of losing their low paid jobs if they get things wrong. For example, should a violent video that normally would be removed remain publicly available due to the political importance attached in highlighting realities on the ground in Ukraine? Should videos or posts that can be used to identify and track troop movements be removed? Are videos falsely claiming to be from the current conflict actually misinformation that needs removing? These are challenging questions during a very difficult time.  

Despite the illusion these platforms give of being places for free speech, they wield their power to carefully curate according to internal policies that are driven by corporate concerns. As such, the processes social media platforms use to decide whether posts should be allowed to stay up, or which accounts can remain active, remain frequently not transparent to their users and  those who work outside the organisation. In the days ahead whilst the conflict continues, hopefully this will not also be the case for their content moderators.

About the authors

Dr Ruth Spence

Dr Ruth Spence is a Research Fellow at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Ruth uses quantitative and online methodologies to research trauma and attachment, working with partners in the third sector, police, and industry.  She is currently project manager on a research study funded by the Technology Coalition to investigate the impacts of the role on content moderators.

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo

Dr Elena Martellozzo is an Associate Professor in Criminology at the centre for Child Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. Elena has extensive experience of applied research within the Criminal Justice arena. Elena’s research includes online stalking, exploring children and young people’s online behaviour, the analysis of sexual grooming and police practice in the area of child sexual abuse. Elena has emerged as a leading researcher and global voice in the field of child protection, victimology, policing and cybercrime. She is a prolific writer and has participated in highly sensitive research with the Police, the IWF, the NSPCC, the OCC, the Home Office and other government departments. Elena has also acted as an advisor on child online protection to governments and practitioners in Italy (since 2004) and Bahrain (2016) to develop a national child internet safety policy framework

Jeffrey DeMarco

Jeffrey DeMarco is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Senior Fellow with the Centre for Abuse and Trauma Studies (CATS) at Middlesex University. His expertise has generally focused on the behavioural understandings of those who are at high risk of exploitation and abuse, applying care and support to those who may be vulnerable being drawn into crime and deviance. The majority of his work explores the intersection between psychology and the online space, including work for the European Commission in enhancing the policing of online sexual abuse; investigating youth justice systems responses to digital risks for UNICEF across the MENA region and eastern Africa; improving partnership between local communities and military in conflict zones using social media, including Iraq and Afghanistan; and assessing the psychopathology of adolescent victims/offenders of many forms of cybercrime. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and the Assistant Director, Knowledge & Insight at Victim Support. 

Editors Picks Law & politics Social commentary

Russian misuse of international law is final nail in coffin of post WW2 order

Dr Elvira Domínguez-Redondo, an Associate Professor of International Law, argues the global system to prevent nuclear war is no longer fit for purpose

The intensity of the global response to the Russian attack on Ukraine has been met by some with scepticism. They view it as a manifestation of Western exceptionalism when the consequences of illegal uses of force have a direct impact on their territory. However, the express Russian threat of escalating the conflict through nuclear weapons is indeed exceptional.

Since these weapons were created, their potential for mutual assured destruction has underpinned international relations  though their destructive capability has not been explicitly articulated as a threat against other States in decades (on this threat see Lewis). Beyond the weapons, the danger posed by potential attacks to nuclear plants has also taken centre stage after the Russian military attacked an administrative building linked to a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia on 4 March 2022 (see Dielnet).

The distortion of arguments based on international law and the position of those making them have, in my opinion, completed the destruction of a system no longer suitable to prevent global armed conflict. This is not – or not only – an intrinsic flaw in the system’s design, but the inevitable by-product of intentional actions carried out by those who ought to have been most interested in preserving it.

Role of Rhetoric in the Russian aggression

International law has been referenced by Russia in justifying its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has advanced every possible exception to the prohibition of the use of force in different disguises including invitation, self-defence, and humanitarian intervention (Sayapin’s summary here).

The weakness of the legal claims are reflected in the general rejection they have deservedly received.[1] Still, the Russian attempt to provide legal grounds to its actions is remarkable, going as far as recognising two new ‘states’ for the purpose of presenting the invasion as a consent-based ‘peace operation’.[2] Russia also declared that sanctions used against its economy as countermeasures are akin go an act of war, reviving legal arguments that equate use of armed force to coercive means of enforcing international law. [3]

The swift engagement and prompt response of the European Court of Human Rights, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court is remarkable and a revealing testimony of the centrality of international law in the means used to address the conflict [4].

Beyond repair – (another) wake up call to replace the system

The United Nations was established in 1945 with the primary objective of protecting future generations from the scourge of war. This mission relied on two pillars: stopping the use of armed force, and creating a Security Council with unique responsibility for maintaining global peace and security. Russia (then the Soviet Union), China, the United Kingdom, France and the United States have since occupied a privileged position with permanent seats and veto powers. In practice this means that outside the confines of self-defence, the use of armed force is only legal if the States most likely to provoke a third world war are in agreement. In other words, the system is based on granting extraordinary powers to a few countries that would, in exchange, act as guardians of international peace and security.

What is often referred to as ‘paralysis’ has been the cornerstone of a system designed to prevent a third world war. As I have explained elsewhere (here and here), the legitimacy of the Security Council has been irreversibly undermined by previous illegal uses of force in Kosovo, Syria and Iraq by other permanent members of the Security Council (mainly the USA and the UK, but also France). States’ attempts to address the Russia/Ukraine conflict through dispute settlement mechanisms, with an emphasis on legal arguments manifested in an exceptionally prolific use of international courts, consolidates the strength of legal rules involved in this scenario.

However, unanimous condemnations of Russia contained in emerging decisions derived from applying standard frameworks are unlikely to stop the war. This conflict will likely end at a negotiation table, potentially with a peace agreement, hopefully in the short-term, to prevent further suffering, loss of life and weapons induced accelerated planetary destruction. The strength of the rule prohibiting the use of force is likely to rise and States that have progressively broadened the scope of exceptions to legitimise their lethal enterprises may reconsider their positions. This is not the case for the system established to monitor and guarantee compliance with the rules through the United Nations Security Council.

The destruction of the pillars on which the collective security system was built in 1945 has been completed by those who benefited most from it and who were in charge of preserving its worth as an effective mechanism to prevent a global armed conflict and total annihilation.

End of the Security Council

Whatever the outcome, it is hardly conceivable that the weakened legitimacy of the Security Council can survive this final blow in neither its current nor reformed form. Those in power will seek to in articulate and enforce rules maintaining the status quo of their privileged position. Because it requires legitimacy to be acceptable to the majority away from power, law also embeds some form of public morality and fairness.

We are at a crossroad: while the prominence of the international legal order in times of crisis has been evident, it is not possible to save the system designed to prevent and/or stop a global war only by rewriting it (as suggested by Johns and Kotova). Paraphrasing Castellino, the logic leading to the obliteration of this system has highlighted how outdated its premises are. This underscores the imperative urgent need for a radically new approach to international relations, perhaps beyond the political organisation of the state and the conception of a ‘nation’ underpinning it.

“Have confidence, have certainty that the spiritual energy of the people will prevail, the non-violent spiritual energy of people against tanks, against guns, against dictatorships, against armies, against the police, will prevail.” Colin Gonsalves.

[1] Gurmendi has compiled other States’ reactions to weakness of Russia’s legal claims here

[2] For a commentary linking the current attack and annexation of Crimea, see Roscini

[3] On reviving legal arguments that equate use of armed force to coercive means of enforcing international law see Mulder in his book Economic Weapon, Yale University Press, March 2022)

[4] Pecorella summarises the role of international law here; for the ICC prosecutions see Coleman, and Wheeler; as well as Schabas  comments on genocide and war crimes)

For a list of recent short commentaries on international law implications related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, see Odermatt here.

Photo by Ahmed Zalabany on Unsplash