The courtroom of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Photo: itlos.org)
The Ukrainian government has been working quietly but consistently through international courts to “return Russia to the framework of international law,” Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal says, an effort that has not attracted as much attention as it deserves but one that promises a good outcome even though Moscow is studiously ignoring it.
Ukraine has brought charges against Russia to the UN Tribunal on Sea Rights regarding Moscow’s illegal seizure of Ukrainian ships and sailors in the Kerch Straits and expects the court to rule in its favor on May 26 even though Moscow has chosen, as is its right, not to take part in the hearings.
Russia’s legal position in this regard is extremely weak, Zerkal and other experts say, not only because it is a signatory to the international convention it has violated but also because it has signed an agreement with Ukraine that specifies the body of water in question is one open to the free passage of all, including Ukrainian vessels.
In this case and in similar ones Ukraine has launched, it is entirely possible that Moscow will ignore the findings of the court and any fines that court does impose, although that will open the way to possible seizure of Russian ships by other countries in order to sell them and pay the fine imposed.
But more than that, Zerkal and other Ukrainian observers say, Russia will by such actions show itself in violation of the UN Charter which requires that all decisions be made via peaceful means. “Courts are the only legitimate path for the resolution of conflicts,” the Ukrainian diplomat says.
“Therefore, we expect that together with the international community, we will be able to return Russia to the framework of international law,” an extraordinarily important step that many do not recognize is one of Ukraine’s central strategies in countering the consequences of Russian aggression.
Boris Kuznetsov, a specialist in international law agrees. He argues that Russia’s failure to take part in such cases reflects the fact that legally it is in a very weak position. By using the international courts in this way, Ukraine is laying the groundwork for broader international cooperation against Russian actions.
He says that he expects the court will find in favor of Ukraine and levy a significant fine on Moscow. Russia may choose not to pay it; but if it does, every single one of its ships putting into a foreign port will now legally be at risk of being seized – and such seizures will be fully in line with international law.
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