How do plundered boats & continued persecution of POWs promote ‘Russia – Ukraine dialogue’, President Macron?
Russia’s return this week of three Ukrainian naval vessels seized by Russia on 25 November 2018 was welcomed by France’s President Emmanuel Macron as “helping to build confidence in the dialogue between Russia and Ukraine”. The move came six months after the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea [ITLOS] ordered the immediate return of the vessels, and three days before the first hearing in the Hague of Ukraine’s suit against Russia over the seizure. Optimism about dialogue can only be limited when the vessels were reportedly returned with even toilet basins removed, and the ‘criminal proceedings’ against the 24 Ukrainian POWs illegally held for 10 months are still continuing.
Russia’s attempts to present the attack on three naval vessels near Crimea and seizure of the 24 men on board as ‘Ukrainian provocation’ have been consistently rejected by the international community. In its first quarterly report after the attack, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights clearly stated that Russia was in breach of international humanitarian law and that the 24 Ukrainians seized on 25 November 2018 were prisoners of war. Then on 25 May 2019, ITLOS ordered Russia to immediately release the 24 Ukrainian seamen and to return the three Ukrainian naval vessels. This was in response to Ukraine’s request for provisional measures and at that stage, the Tribunal only demanded the men’s return to Ukraine, not the termination of the criminal charges against them (of ‘illegally crossing Russia’s borders’).
The men were only returned to Ukraine on 7 September as part of an exchange of prisoners, almost certainly aimed at removing MH17 suspect Vladimir Tsemakh from the reach of international investigators. The boats were returned on 18 November, without any of the weapons, the men’s mobile phones and, reportedly, with other personal items and, as mentioned, even toilet basins missing.
Nikolai Polozov, the coordinator of the team of lawyers representing the men, explains that the weapons, navigation system and the mobile phones were officially withheld as Russia has not given up its attempt to prosecute the men, and is claiming that these items are ‘material evidence’. An inquiry is needed, he says, into what other items have disappeared. UNIAN reports that Maria Zakharova, Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, was asked about the plundered toilet basins. She responded, rather bizarrely, by saying that she couldn’t understand how the removal of such basins could impact upon the vessels’ combat readiness. More predictably, the FSB appear to be denying any removal of such items.
Russia, in the person of President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has also denied that the return of the vessels was linked with the first day of court proceedings directly over the seizure of the same vessels and their crew.
This is one of Moscow’s standard lines. The other is that international courts, including ITLOS and the UN’s International Court of Justice, do not have the jurisdiction to examine the cases brought by Ukraine. The latter court has definitively ruled that it does have jurisdiction, and ITLOS was certainly in no doubt when it agreed to impose the provisional measures which Russia flouted for many months.
The hearings on 21 November were before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, with the case originally brought over Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s rights to the coastal waters around Crimea which Russia is illegally occupying. Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister and head of the delegation at the Hague, however, stated on Thursday that the hearings, which are for the moment of a procedural nature, concern the seizure of the naval vessels and the 24 seamen.
She says that Ukraine is asking for the case to be treated as urgent since the criminal proceedings against the 24 former POWs have not been terminated. This means that Russia is continuing to deny the Ukrainian seamen’s immunity. By returning the boats without weapons, means of communications and documents, she stresses, “the Russian Federation is continuing to violate the Order from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea of 25 May 2019 and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Ukraine hopes that the Tribunal will recognize Russia’s violation of a number of articles of the Convention. Russia is trying to drag the proceedings and also keep them as much as possible held behind closed doors, moves that Ukraine is opposing.
France under Macron was one of the leading advocates for the waiving of Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe sanctions against Russia and for greater ‘dialogue’ with Moscow. There is nothing at all to suggest that the waiving of sanctions and admission of individuals who are under EU sanctions have led to any positive changes in Russia’s behaviour either at home or abroad. Quite the contrary, since the number of political prisoners in Russia and occupied Crimea has risen dramatically this year, and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is continuing.