Professor David M. Crane, Founding Chief Prosecutor of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, analyzes the concepts of 'peace' and 'aggression' against the backdrop of the potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia...
We all recall the famous photo in 1938 of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping off his plane holding up an agreement with Adolf Hitler that averted a possible conflict with Germany. He gave away the Sudetenland and the political independence of Czechoslovakia to do so. Chamberlain proudly declared “peace in our time.” Alas one year later, the world was plunged into a Second World War that saw the destruction of over 70 million human beings. Historian Max Hastings stated that for those five tragic years the dominant human emotion was fear and despair. Chamberlain’s attempt of appeasing a tyrant had failed.
Today, diplomacy is an important tool in ensuring international peace and security. Settling disputes peacefully is one of the cornerstones of the United Nations paradigm, put in place over seventy-five years ago. Use of force in the modern era is a last resort and used for legitimate reasons, usually backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Aggression is now an international crime. The Rome Statute deems a nation that invades the sovereign territory of another nation without legal authority as an act of aggression. The nation could be held accountable for those acts…in theory. The crime of aggression is a political act with political consequences, yet an appropriate legal resolution to aggression is illusory for all intents and purposes. At the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, in 1945, the Nazi defendants were charged with the crime of aggression. The majority were found guilty of that charge. It was the last time.
Aggression is a disruptive act used to challenge international peace and security, but because it was perceived as a political act, nations are hesitant to respond. However, modern international criminal law has established a legal norm to address aggressive acts. Two decades of jurisprudence, procedure, and experience now allow us to deal with actions that disrupt international peace and security. It is an important legal standard.
Yet in the Age of the Strongman, interest in accountability for international crimes has waned. Though there have been important efforts by domestic states, civil societies, and various international mechanisms to account for atrocity, international leadership has been weak. Over the past several years the United Nations has shown little ability to control challenges to the international rule of law, a circumstance not seen since the Cold War.
Another challenge to world order is that modern international criminal law has become a two-tiered legal system where several countries operate above the Rome paradigm of international criminal accountability. Russia, China, even the United States, (three fifths of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council) are not state parties to the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court. Russia and the United States have committed aggressive acts in Iraq, Georgia, and the Crimea. China currently is committing a genocide against the Uyghur people and is not shy in considering aggression if and when it meets its political goals. Just remember Tibet, Hong Kong, and eventually Taiwan. Thus far there has been no accountability for those acts.
Today the international community is holding its breath as Russia prepares to invade the Ukraine. Aggression once again seems to be a safe political act for a nation that feels it is above international law. NATO has begun to react to protect its member states, but it can do little to stop the invasion. Even if it did do something, it could start another world war, a result no one wants. With no reason legally to invade the Ukraine, Russia is fabricating false reasons to do so, very much like Nazi Germany did when it invaded Poland in 1939. History shows that appeasement in the face of aggression never succeeds.
The world is unstable for many reasons and this instability fosters situations where aggression becomes a powerful tool to be used by tyrants and strongmen. Democracies around the world tend to shrink from the thought of conflict and generally resort to force only when shocked into action. Remember Pearl Harbor. The default is appeasement through diplomacy.
Alas, even with the crime of aggression under the rule of law in place, tyrants, as they always have, will turn to force and threaten their neighbors. Peace in our time is an aspiration worthy of our attention, but there will come a time, perhaps in weeks, that democracies will have to stand shoulder to shoulder to face down aggression by Russia, led by an autocrat, and restore international peace and security under the United Nations paradigm. Heed the words of Winston S. Churchill, Neville Chamberlain’s successor, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Professor David M. Crane was the Founding Chief Prosecutor, UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is a Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Syracuse University College of Law; and Founder of the Global Accountability Network, which houses the Uyghur Accountability Project.
Suggested citation: David M. Crane, Peace in our Time! Appeasement and Tyranny – Feeding the Crocodile, JURIST – Academic Commentary, February 9, 2022, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2022/02/david-crane-peace-in-our-time/.
This article was prepared for publication by Sambhav Sharma, a JURIST Staff Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to him at email@example.com
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