Netherlands demand release of Greenpeace activists as Russia boycotts tribunal

Dutch representatives appeared before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea today to order Russia to release the protesters arrested in September when they tried to board an oil rig. 

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Greenpeace International activists on an inflatable boat pass by the Moscow's Kremlin along the Moskva River, protesting against Russia's detention of members of the environmental group in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 6.

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The Netherlands asked an international court Tuesday to order Russia to release 30 people arrested after trying to board an oil drilling rig in Arctic waters in September. Moscow, however, has refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, continuing its hard-line approach toward the 30, which include activists, crew members of the Dutch-flagged ship Arctic Sunrise, and two reporters. 

Russian refusal to accept the tribunal’s arbitration of the case – despite being a signatory to the treaty establishing the court – arrived against the backdrop of Moscow's increasing belligerence in defending its interests in the Arctic, in particular when energy issues are at play. The strategic priority of the ever-important Arctic region to Moscow has recently reached new heights, as the gradual melting of the polar ice cap opens new shipping routes and promises new access to valuable natural resources.

The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was formed in 1982 by the UN convention signed by both the Netherlands and Russia. Its mandate is to enforce the International Law of the Sea and to settle maritime disputes. 

This mandate, Dutch representatives argued today, obliged the tribunal to make a ruling on the Arctic Sunrise seizure. And because the Greenpeace protest took place in international waters where free rights of transit apply, the tribunal should rule for the crew’s immediate release, they said.

The task of taking Russia to court fell to the Netherlands because Arctic Sunrise sailed under its flag. Two of the 30 detainees (28 activists and two reporters from 18 countries) are Dutch citizens.

Russian prosecutors announced two weeks ago that activists’ original piracy charges will be scaled down to hooliganism, an offense that still carries a maximum seven-year sentence. The “Arctic 30,” as they came to be known, have recently been moved from Murmansk to St. Petersburg, where they await trial.

As the tribunal got underway in Hamburg, inflatable Greenpeace boats sailed down Moscow river past the Kremlin walls, activists holding yellow flags that read “Free the Arctic 30!” that flapped in the wind.

“As things stand, the Russian authorities propose to jail 30 men and women for two decades because a couple of peaceful protesters tried to hang a small yellow banner from the side of a 5,000-ton oil platform," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo during the Hamburg proceedings according to the Greenpeace statement. “In our view, there's every prospect the tribunal will order the release of the Arctic 30, pending the arbitration case that the Netherlands has filed against Russia."

Apart from one of the tribunal’s 21 judges, no Russian representatives were present to consider or contest his arguments.

Moscow had announced earlier that it had no intention of complying with the tribunal’s decision because when it originally signed the treaty, it had declared itself exempt from any Law of the Sea rulings that impinge on its national sovereignty. Such exemptions, known as "reservations," are a common feature of international law.

The Kremlin has doggedly insisted that the investigation was its internal matter and that the icebreaker crew was seized for posing a dire safety threat.

Speaking last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev justified Russia’s commitment to resist any outside efforts to “influence technically complicated and unsafe processes” of natural-resource extraction, especially when it came to “powder keg” oil platforms, according to Agence France-Presse. 

Netherlands insisted at today's hearing that Moscow would remain bound by the tribunal decision (tentatively scheduled for Friday, November 22) regardless of its non-appearance.

But the court has no latitude when it comes to enforcing its rulings. The tribunal’s website simply states, somewhat optimistically, that “the parties to the dispute are required to comply” with its orders. With no established mechanism to move from resolution to implementation and faced with an intransigent party like Russia, its leverage over Moscow remains highly doubtful at best. 

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