Analysis: There are many international law implications from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, especially those laws governing the conduct of hostilities

The number of civilians killed during Russia's invasion of Ukraine is continuing to rise. There is a real risk the conflict will become more brutal and destructive the longer it continues. The conduct of hostilities by Russian forces in previous conflicts such as Chechnya was characterised by its indiscriminate nature and brutality.

Based on the lack of respect for international law by Russian troops in other settings in recent years, which has been met with impunity, Amnesty International expressed extreme concern about the likelihood of history repeating itself. For this reason it is worth considering some of the international law implications, especially the laws governing the conduct of hostilities.

An illegal war of aggression

The invasion is a violation of the UN Charter, which, under Article 2(4), prohibits the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." There were no grounds to support the claim of self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter. Indeed all Vladimir Putin’s claims have been challenged as pretexts for the invasion, which constitutes an act of aggression and is contrary to international law. The Russian president may be individually responsible for the crime of aggression, one of the core crimes set out in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

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From RTÉ News, RTÉ Europe Editor Tony Connelly reports from Lviv in western Ukraine

Putin's thinly veiled references to resort to nuclear weapons should other states intervene militarily are also unlawful threats of force contrary to the UN Charter. Today it is widely recognized that the use of nuclear weapons is contrary to international humanitarian law, primarily because they cannot meet the requirement of discrimination between military targets and civilian persons/infrastructure.

In 1994, the International Court of Justice found such use, or threatened use, to be illegal. The main circumstance in which the Court could not reach a conclusion, when the survival of a state is at stake, is not at issue for Russia in the present crisis.

International humanitarian law and warfare

War or armed conflict is always brutal and terrible, but some wars, and some theatres of war have been more vicious than others. International law regulates the methods and means of warfare. It aims to strike a balance between legitimate military objectives and the humanitarian objective of reducing suffering, particularly among civilians.

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From RTÉ News, UN holds emergency meeting of its general assembly in New York to discuss the invasion of Ukraine

An 'armed conflict’ triggers the application of international humanitarian law. This is said to exist once fighting breaks out between the armed forces of two states or when the armed forces of one state invade the territory of another state. This is irrespective of the scale of the fighting or, indeed, whether a formal 'declaration of war’ has been made by either party in the case of an invasion. Territory under military occupation is also deemed to constitute a situation of international armed conflict.

The principles of military necessity, humanity, distinction and proportionality are fundamental to international humanitarian law. The principle of humanity forbids the infliction of suffering, injury or destruction not actually necessary for legitimate military purposes. It is applicable to military purposes and choice of weapons – weapons which cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury are prohibited.

War and civilians

The essence of the ‘principle of distinction’ is that a distinction must always be drawn between combatants and non-combatants. The policy of issuing weapons to the ordinary citizens of Ukraine is fraught with difficulties. Any civilian taking a direct part in hostilities is a legitimate target and the policy means that all citizens are put in danger.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Europe Editor on the civilian casualties in Ukraine so far

Protected objects are those generally used for civilian purposes which do not effectively contribute to the war effort and whose destruction does not offer a definite military advantage. This should be contrasted with military objects, which by their nature, location, purpose or use, make an effective contribution to military action. Their total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization must offer a definite military advantage.

Russian weapons: 'serious concerns'

Some of the weapons being used by the Russians raise serious concerns. The TOS-1, nicknamed the "Buratino" is one of the most feared weapons systems in Russia’s conventional armoury, a multiple launch rocket system capable of firing thermobaric rockets designed to kill everyone in a building they strike. Russian forces and separatist allies are also reported to have used the indiscriminate BM-21 "Grad" multiple launch rocket system.

The Bellingcat investigative website has also been collecting evidence of the suspected use of Uragan and Smerch cluster rockets and their submunitions. The use of cluster munitions appear to have impacted sites around schools and hospitals. Cluster munitions are a type of weapon that deploy a large number of smaller sub-munitions over a target. These sub-munitions then spread and explode over a larger area, increasing the potential for damage and casualties. They are inherently indiscriminate and pose an immediate and long term serious threat to civilians.

The use of both multiple launch rocket systems and cruise missiles against civilian areas during the invasion has already been condemned by Amnesty International. Particular concern has been raised over the Russian use of Kalibr cruise missiles, especially in built up areas.

Restoring peace and security

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, independent Russia analyst Stephen Dalziel on talks between Russia and Ukraine aimed at securing a ceasefire

In the months leading up to the invasion, the UN and states involved in the crisis failed to achieve a core purpose of the UN Charter set out in Article 1(1), namely "to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, … settlement of international disputes". It remains the responsibility of those states to bring about a ceasefire, and to resolve differences in accordance with the Charter. This requires member states to settle "international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered." It is also the responsibility of the UN Security Council to restore international peace and security.

Although Putin’s regime must suffer serious adverse consequences for its blatant disregard of international norms, Russian and US leaders must ultimately seek to resume talks through their stalled strategic security dialogue to defuse broader NATO-Russia tensions. Instead of focusing on increased defence spending, it would be preferable to adopt effective arms control measures to prevent an all-out arms race. It is also critical that all violations of international law are investigated and those responsible held accountable.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ