According to media reports, Berlin wants to deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine. According to international law experts, the threshold of becoming a party to the conflict was insurmountable.
Long hesitations, long discussions: How can Germany support Ukraine, which weapons can be delivered without crossing the red lines? There is no easy answer to the question of when a state that provides military support to one of the parties to the conflict will itself become a party to the war. But in terms of international law, the threshold has not yet been reached with the delivery of battle tanks like the Leopard.
Exceptions to the prohibition of violence
A general prohibition on the use of force applies in international law. However, a principle that knows exceptions. The United Nations Charter gives every country the right to defend itself against armed attack. As early as March 2022, the UN General Assembly condemned Russia’s military “attack” on Ukraine as a violation of the UN Charter, thus affirming Ukraine’s right to self-defense.
Weapons deliveries do not lead to involvement in the conflict
Other countries may support an attacked state in self-defense. There is no obligation to remain impartial. Legally, military aid to Ukraine may also be allowed.
It is also accepted in international law that the support given only through the supply of arms does not exceed the limit of participation in a conflict. The extent of arms deliveries and the question of whether they are offensive or defensive weapons is also irrelevant. In other words, the red line has not yet been reached with the delivery of Leopard 2 tanks. According to international law expert Alexander Wentker, the deciding factor is not what you give, but whether and how you get involved in certain military operations.
While the war side intervenes, at least with its own armed forces
A state becomes a party to the war if it itself takes part in the conflict. This is especially true where one is directly involved in combat operations of one’s own armed forces. This would include military surveillance and the enforcement of a “no-fly zone,” according to the Bundestag’s science service.
Everything in between is a gray area. There are no clearly defined criteria, but from the perspective of international legal experts, two criteria must be met for an act of support to justify participation in the war:
“Secondly, the supporting state must coordinate its contribution closely enough with the supported war party,” Wentker explained.
approach step by step
In recent months, the federal government has decided to gradually supply anti-aircraft tanks, self-propelled howitzers, ammunition and air defense systems, the latest Marder infantry fighting vehicles. With Leopard tanks, Germany now wants to deliver its main battle tanks for the first time. Compared to infantry fighting vehicles, they are significantly more heavily armed and armored. The Leopard 2 is also considered one of the most powerful main battle tanks in the world.
The question of whether a particular shipment will draw Germany into the conflict comes up again and again. This can be answered in terms of international law. What assessment did the Russian government make is another question.
Charlotte Greipl and Jan Henrich are editors of the ZDF editorial team Law and Justice.
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