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Plebiscite in Crimea and Public International Law

By Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law


In light of the fact that Crimean Peninsula is part of Ukraine as a country, it has no right at all in the public international law to ask for annexation of this territory to any country or perform a referendum for determining the issuers related to sovereignty in the region. The fact that there is a majority of a different ethnic group in the concerned area, (in this case, the Russians), or the majority of the inhabitants of this area have a certain preference for the issues related to the sovereignty in this area, or there has been historically a different kind of arrangement for running the affairs of this area, or the forces of a foreign country have a military base in the area, have nothing to do with the right and jurisdiction to determine which country has the sovereignty in the area. It is not really important what the existing Crimean local government calls itself, whether it is a part of a federal system, an autonomous region, a special unit or whatever other name it likes to call itself, or it has a separate parliament and regional establishment. This does not change the fact that the region is part of a country called Ukraine.

In the eyes of the international law there is no separate state or country in the Crimean peninsula to act as a subject of international law. The Crimean local government does not have the right or jurisdiction to determine issues such the foreign policy, military actions, declaring war or peace, determining the international borders and making decisions in such issues for the central government of a sovereign country. Decision of the local parliament in Crimea for annexation of the region to another country or conducting a plebiscite to determine the future issues of sovereignty in this region has no value in the international law.

The existence of a certain ethnic majority or minority in a part of a country cannot be the basis in the international law upon which those groups rely to determine the borders of their region. This can even be extended to the way that they think, in addition to their ethnic origins. Suppose the local government in any country decides to annex the area of its entity to another county. If the people in many parts of the world are asked: do you want to a part of Iran, Jordan, Korea, or a part of the United States, what would be the answer in many cases? And can this be a basis to decide the sovereignty of the place.

In the past, under certain serious conditions, important international organizations such the League of Nations and UNO have presented a mechanism for determining the fate of a region through a plebiscite but this requires going through the entire process that these organizations have envisaged (such as taking the issue to the UN Security Council and getting a vote or resolution under certain parts of the UN Charter) and observing the entire regulations and standards set by various international institutions (including and especially the standards set by the EU) for ensuring the healthy and corruption-free referendum. It seems that none of these conditions is present in the Crimean-Ukraine issue.


Bahman A Diba, PhD International Law of the Seas, is the author of several books. His latest books were published in 2011:


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