The Arctic 30: Does Arbitration Have The Power To Free Them?

Photo of Carlos A. Maycotte

An international crisis appears to lurching towards a resolution, as the Russian government has dropped piracy charges against 30 Greenpeace activists it arrested last month in the Arctic Circle. Instead, Russia will charge the protestors with “hooliganism,” which is punished with a maximum of 15 days in jail, in contrast to piracy’s 15-year sentence.

The controversy began on September 18, when a Greenpeace ship called the “Arctic Sunrise,” flying under Dutch flag, was intercepted and boarded by the Russian coast guard. Two photographers and twenty-eight protesters, hailing from 19 different countries, were arrested and charged with piracy, provoking an international crisis. The group was protesting the activities of Gazprom, a Russian oil company, which intended to be the first entity to begin operations to pump oil from Arctic waters.

Russia initially brought forth charges of piracy against each member of the “Arctic 30.” In response, the Dutch government initiated arbitration proceedings against Russia – arguing that the detention was illegal and seeking the release of the 30 detainees – at the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was created under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. Although the Convention allows for dispute resolution through different institutions, including the International Court of Justice, Russia indicated that arbitration would be its preferred path when it ratified the Convention in 1997.

Netherlands, in its petition for arbitration, also requested the Tribunal to order Russia to immediately release the Arctic 30 as an interim measure. This raised serious questions about the ability of an arbitral tribunal to issue interim orders to a sovereign nation before the dispute resolution process even starts, as the tribunal itself has not even been selected yet.

Although Putin acknowledged that the detained protestors were clearly not pirates, Russia refused to enter into arbitration. The Russian foreign ministry said it would not attend the proceedings, claiming that the activists “violated Russian law on the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf.” The Russian government is challenging the notion that the tribunal convened under the Convention has jurisdiction to arbitrate the dispute. Although the charges against the protestors have been dropped from piracy to hooliganism, Greenpeace still intends to fight them. Now, their focus is on securing the immediate release of the detainees as they await their Russian court date.


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