We live in a world in which principles and rules are important – if we are to preserve peace and avoid descending into a “hobbesian” chaos of numerous conflicts.
Evidence point at the recent escalation towards war in the Caucasus was triggered by the separatist leadership in South Ossetia when they launched their offensive Thursday morning. They might have had their own motives for trying to provoke a war between Russia and Georgia.
And then the one step of escalation followed the other – and suddenly there is war.
Russia is now justifying its large-scale aggressive action – including air attacks across the territory of Georgia – with an alleged constitutional duty to protect citizens of Russia wherever they happen to be located.
This is an extremely dangerous argument that runs contrary to key principles of international law as well as to the brutally learnt experience of European history.
Responsibility for the protection of the citizen and inhabitants of any state rests with the state concerned.
Every state has a responsibility to protect. But no state has the right to unilaterally intervene military in another state with the pretext of protecting its citizens.
In this case it should be noted that Russia has been handing out passport rather freely to the inhabitants of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There is little doubt that this has been part of a deliberate policy of gradually increasing Russian influence over these parts of Georgia.
The argument now used by the Kremlin to justify its intervention is not new in the history of Europe.
We have seen powers before claiming that the violations of the rights of holders of their passports or their nationality – by a previous Germany in Eastern Europe or a previous Serbia in former Yugoslavia – justify them sending their armies into these countries. We have seen the wars that have followed the application of that principle – and that is why it has repeatedly been made clear that it runs contrary to international law.
There are holders of Russian passport in numerous other European countries today. In many cases this is the result of historical circumstances. But in a Europe of increasingly open borders and accelerating integration – the Europe we seek! – we will increasingly see the holders of one passport living and working in another state.
Their rights should be protected like the rights of all others. With the European Court of Human Rights we have the most comprehensive trans-national system for the protection of human rights of any part of the world. This applies to Russians in other European countries as well to the very many non-Russians living in Russia.
A Europe in which we would accept the right of Russia to intervene in any country where there are holders of Russian passports – or the right of any other nation to intervene in the same way – would be a Europe sinking down again in the chaos and conflicts of the past.
That’s why this conflict now is not only about South Ossetia and Georgia – it is about principles fundamental to the peace and stability of all of Europe. And the defence of these principles should be the duty of each and everyone of us.