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The war in Ukraine: ‘When the rule of power replaces the rule of law’

On Wednesday 9 March, a Faculty meeting about the war in Ukraine was held for staff and students in the Lorentz Lecture Hall. By the time the meeting started at 17.00 hrs, the 220 available seats in the lecture hall had been filled mainly by large numbers of students.

Dean Joanne van der Leun started the meeting via a livestream. The horrors taking place in Ukraine have cast a shadow over the long-awaited return to the Faculty of students and staff which we had all looked forward to. The Dean said the meeting was necessary because besides people with emotions and feelings, there are also academic staff who want to and can share their expertise and scientific knowledge. She called for contributions to the emergency fund that has been set up by Leiden University Fund for all students who are victims of this war.

Niels Blokker and Veronika Yefremova

Violation of international law

Chairman Niels Blokker, Professor of International Institutional Law, former legal advisor at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had organised the Faculty meeting together with Hungarian-Dutch master’s student Tamara Végh. He stressed the need for academic staff and students to come together at a time when fundamental principles of international law are being violated; ‘a society based on the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of power. Europe and the world are shocked by the aggression and human suffering that Russia, led by Putin, is inflicting on Ukraine.’

The meeting was divided into two parts with various speakers. Veronika Yefremova, from Ukraine, kicked off the meeting. She is a PhD candidate at Leiden Law School, but today she spoke as a Ukrainian. She emphasised that Ukraine is a strong country that has its own identity. ‘Ukraine has fought for this for a long time and that is what the whole world is now seeing. Russian can bomb us and conquer us militarily, but they will not take that away from us’. She also called for an accelerated accession to the EU. ‘For a country at war, an exception should be made.’

Veronika was followed by Ferdinand Feldbrugge, emeritus professor of Russian Law and Eastern European Law. The retired professor explained the geopolitical history of Russia and Ukraine and so provided further insight into Russia’s actions.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, emeritus professor of International Relations and Diplomatic Practice, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and a former Secretary-General of NATO, has met Putin on several occasions. He does not call him irrational, but ‘calculated unpredictable’. Putin wants us to act on his so-called unpredictable behaviour. Furthermore, De Hoop Scheffer says that Putin is ruthless and his thirst for power does not stop with Ukraine. He closed the first part of the meeting with a clear call to the students: ‘in the world in which we now live, you much longer than I, we are seeing that autocracy is on the rise. Never give up on democracy and our rule of law, and continue to defend these fundamental rights – acquired in freedom – at all times.’

In between the two parts of speakers’ contributions, some international and Dutch students in the audience expressed their perspective on Russia’s invasion, and the flow of refugees coming from Ukraine. Students from Hungary and Poland, for example, spoke about how these countries, not always in agreement with the rest of Europe, are now caring for many refugees. They hope this will continue and that it is being done for the right reasons. Another student told the harrowing story of a friend fleeing from Lviv, Ukraine. A student from Switzerland told of major changes in the neutral position of her country, which is now participating in economic sanctions against Russia.

Remain critical and open for discussion

The second group of speakers started with Nico Schrijver, emeritus professor of International Law, who discussed the role of the United Nations in particular. He was followed by former dean Rick Lawson, Professor of European Law, on the suspension of Russia from the European Council. Cecily Rose, Assistant Professor of International Law, discussed the proceedings before the International Court of Justice that Ukraine has initiated against Russia under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Carsten Stahn, Professor of International Criminal Law and Global Justice, closed the meeting with the possibility of adjudication by the International Criminal Court. The audience was urged to remain critical, be open to each other’s opinions and to make a contribution to Leiden University’s Emergency Fund

Afterwards there were drinks in the restaurant where a lively discussion continued for some time.

Text: Nicole de Waal
Photos: Monique Shaw

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