Rescuers work next to a household market damaged by shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in this handout picture released March 16, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

The Hague: Russia was ordered to halt its attacks on Ukraine by the United Nations’ top court on Wednesday, in a preliminary decision that appeared to have largely symbolic significance.

Ukraine initiated the case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague to contest President Vladimir Putin’s official explanation for entering the country as an effort to end a “genocide” of pro-Russian separatists.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a tweet the order constituted a “complete victory in its case against Russia” and that “ignoring the order will isolate Russia even further.”

Though the court’s preliminary order is in theory binding under international law, there were no signs that Moscow would comply. No Russian representatives showed up when Ukraine argued its case last week.

A final ruling, potentially years away, would also be expected to have negligible impact.

The ICJ does not appear to have a viable path to enforce the decision. Sanctions could only be imposed by the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent member and where it has a veto power. The court’s mission is to settle disputes between sovereign nations, and it cannot charge presidents or military leaders with war crimes, for example.

If one of the conflict parties is “ignoring basic principles of war, there’s a question about the utility of invoking the law vis-a-vis that party when you don’t have a strong enforcement power,” said Yuval Shany, an International law expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

But Shany added that a ruling could still have “some value,” for example by debunking the Russian explanation for the military action.

While 13 of the court’s judges voted in favour of the preliminary measure ordering Russia to halt its attacks, two - one judge from Russia, and one from China - opposed it.

The proceedings centre on Russia’s official explanation for its military action in Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin has said is intended to achieve the “denazification” of Ukraine and end a “genocide” in the country’s east.

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Representatives of Ukraine argued last week that the Russian accusations represented a pretext for illegal attacks. Ukraine asked for immediate “provisional” relief, ordering Russia to cease its own military operations and withdraw, and to stop all support for any other armed groups, while the court considers whether Russia has any right to justify its actions on grounds of “protecting” Ukraine from genocide.

There is precedent for such a provisional judgment, even if the defendant does not show up. In 1984, Nicaragua won a similar ruling before the ICJ against the United States for its funding and support of the contra rebels seeking to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. The United States refused to participate in the proceedings, arguing the ICJ, one of the founding components of the United Nations system, lacked jurisdiction. But it later blocked UN Security Council enforcement, refusing to pay Nicaragua ordered compensation.

In the current case, Ukraine argued that the court has jurisdiction because both Russia and Ukraine have signed the 1948 treaty on the prevention of genocide.

Before the proceedings got underway, ICJ President Joan E. Donoghue had urged Russia’s foreign minister two weeks ago to “act in such a way” that a court order - including one that may order Russia to halt hostilities - can “have its appropriate effects.”

One of Russia’s longtime lawyers, Alain Pellet, resigned in the lede-up to the proceedings, writing in an open letter that it “has become impossible to represent in forums dedicated to the application of the law a country that so cynically despises it.”