Crimea, the Referendum (!) and International Law: Highway to the Danger Zone

– Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman

Author is pursuing LL.M. in South Asian University (SAU) and an awardee of SAU President Scholarship (2012-2014).

Author’s SSRN Link:

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As a consequence of the referendum result (of March 16, 2014),  Crimea’s regional government would make (on March 17, 2014) formal application Monday to join the Russian Federation. Thereafter, Russia’s lower house of parliament would proceed to pass legislation allowing Ukraine’s southern Crimea region to annex with Russia ‘in the very near future’.

Crimea is an autonomous republic of Ukraine conceiving the territory of nearly all of the North Black Sea Peninsula.  From 700 B.C. onwards, the peninsula of Crimea had been rigged with invasions and rulings by motley of panjandrum rulers- from Greek, Romans, Mongols to Ottoman Turks, Russian, German and present Ukraine. Sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, Crimea had been an apt place for Russian Tzars and Soviet topbrass for spending their summer vacation. This autonomous region of Ukraine is consisted of 12.1% Crimean Tatars, 24.4% ethnic Ukrainians and 58.5% ethnic Russians.

There are 1.5 million eligible voters and election officials put the turnout in Sunday’s vote at more than 80% and it is quite higher than the numbers in local elections. Crowds of pro-Moscow voters have been elated with  the result of referendum but scores of Crimeans loyal to Ukraine boycotted the referendum. Many ethnic Tatar boycotted the referendum. Majority of the Tatars (Muslim ethnic minority) believe that their life under the Kremlin would be worse. They deem the referendum as illegal as it  was held in a hasty manner under the control of Russian troops. There are also brewing doubts as to the monitoring and presiding system of the referendum voting. In many polling stations there was no monitoring as to voters’ proper identity checking.

Both the EU and the US condemned it as illegal. European Union (EU) said the vote was “illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised”. The EU said in a statement clearing its current position  that the vote was ‘illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised’. In the statement, EU emphasized that crisis in Ukraine must be based on the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, in the framework of the Ukrainian Constitution as well as the strict adherence to international standards. To cope the present tangled situation EU stated- ‘only working together through diplomatic processes, including direct discussions between the Governments of Ukraine and Russia, can we find a solution to the crisis’.  However, EU also affirms that  it has been vested with  special responsibility for peace and prosperity on Europe and will continue pursuing these objectives using all available channels.

However, Russia, on the other hand, contended that the referendum was “fully consistent with international law and the U.N. Charter” and cited Kosovo precedent. Vladimir Putin argued that the adopted steps are based on the ‘norms of international law’. No doubt the ‘Russian Spring’ in Ukraine’s autonomous territory (i.e, Crimea) would obviously cast a doubt on significance of EU and its role for Europe’s peace and security.

The right of self-determination, as enshrined in the UN Charter and international human rights treaties, enables a people to determine for themselves their political, economic, social and cultural status.  It is not unlawful for it to have a referendum and declare itself independent. The Scottish independence issue can be brought here as an apt illustration. Separation of Scotland from the UK can only happen when voting would be conducted in compliance with democratic principles and also in a manner deemed to be constitutional in accordance with the UK Constitution. However, it does not mean that that such voting requires to be happened like it had been conducted in Crimea with presence of heavy private troops along with brittle vote monitoring system.

Furthermore, two prerequisites are needed to be conformed to make such referendum valid (from international law perspective) which Crimea miserably failed to conform:

firstly, action of the state within whose orb the people (i.e, Crimean) reside;

and lastly, but no way the least,  the responses of the international community.

The concept right of self-determination does not provide a legal right for a foreign state to intervene in the territory of another state, not even through private actors (like those in Crimea). What has been happening in the autonomous territory of Ukraine is just the opposite. Such action and initiative is obviously unlawful from International Law perspective and can never provide the vista of international peace, security and prosperity. International community always disfavor general right of secession under international law. Rather, there has been limited (narrowed) acceptance of the legitimacy of the concept.

The Canadian Supreme Court in the issue of Quebec Secession declares that neither the Quebec government nor legislature have a legal right under Canadian constitutional law or under international law to unilaterally secede from Canada. From that point of view, Crimea’s regional government’s held referendum is unlawful.

To depict the upcoming abseiling events, following the Crimea Referendum, author has to lend few lines from 1980’s hit song ‘Danger Zone’:

Highway to the Danger Zone; Ride into the Danger Zone

~ Kenny Loggins, ‘TOP GUN’

Suggested Citation:


Mohammad Rubaiyat Rahman, ‘Crimea, the Referendum (!) and International Law: Highway to the Danger Zone’ (South Asia Canteen 2014) <; accessed


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