On Wednesday morning, a panel of 22 judges took their seats at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a UN-mandated court based in Hamburg, Germany, only to find the defendants’ table empty. The plaintiffs, representing the Dutch government, glanced over at the seats reserved for their Russian counterparts, who had been called to defend Russia’s decision in September to seize a Dutch-flagged vessel and arrest the Greenpeace activists on board protesting Russian oil drilling in the Arctic. But the Russians failed to show up for their day in court, becoming the first state in history to ignore the Tribunal outright. It was a telling precedent and, for many observers, a worrying sign of Russia’s selective adherence to international law.
Two months ago, the sanctity of international law seemed to be all Russian President Vladimir Putin talked about, especially when the subject turned to the UN’s role in resolving international conflicts. At the time, the U.S. was calling for a military intervention in Syria’s civil war, and Putin was fighting hard to stop it while trying not to seem like the Syrian regime’s protector. “We are not defending that government,” Putin said of Syria on Sept. 3. “We are defending the norms and principles of international law,” he told the Associated Press. And the strategy worked – the U.S. called off its planned military strikes, and the debate over Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons was pushed back into the UN Security Council, where Russia has veto power. Yet on Wednesday, when Russia was called to another UN institution to resolve its conflict with the Netherlands, it did not even bother to make an appearance.
In a note to the Tribunal on Oct. 23, the Russian embassy in Berlin explained that it does not recognize the Tribunal’s authority – even though that authority is enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Russia signed in 1997. To skirt the body’s decisions, Russia said that its ratification of the treaty left a loophole. Back in 1997, Russia had “made a statement” that it does not accept the Tribunal’s “decisions with respect to disputes,” the embassy’s note said.
Rob Huebert, an expert on maritime law at Canada’s University of Calgary, says Russia was one of the few countries to create this back door for itself during the ratification process. In order to entice more signatories, “the treaty gave countries the right to decide which parts they would and would not abide by,” he says. So Russia was allowed to sign the treaty that created the Tribunal, even as it made clear that it would not accept the Tribunal’s decisions on disputes involving Russia. Huebert explains the apparent paradox this way: “If you’re looking for consistency, take a baking course. International law does not work that way. It’s always a question of what you can get away with.”
And Russia has gotten away with a lot. The European Court of Human Rights, for instance, is another international body whose founding charter Russia signed and ratified, but whose rulings Russia routinely chooses to ignore, says Boris Dittrich, a human rights activist and former head of a faction in the Dutch parliament. “This is a consistent pattern,” he says. “Russia doesn’t care much about international human rights law.”
But it does worry about it. From Russia’s perspective, the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea could prove troublesome in the coming years. The most important disputes now facing the Tribunal involve competing claims for territory in the Arctic, where Russia has a lot at stake. Several of the countries that border the Arctic are in the process of filing claims to the UN for Arctic territory, and the Tribunal will have to rule on any disputes between them. Russia, as the largest Arctic power, has staked its claim to the largest chunk of Arctic territory, reaching all the way up to the North Pole. “There’s already been some contentiousness on that,” says Robert Corell, a leading U.S. expert on climate change and the Arctic.
As those conflicts play out, the Tribunal will be the venue for resolving them – assuming that all parties are willing to come to the table. So Russia’s snub on Wednesday, Corell says, sets a “difficult” precedent. “It just creates more doubt about Russia’s intentions,” he says. “Putin has said that we will be part of the dialogue, so I’m surprised that they weren’t even willing to show up.”
In September, Russia’s decision to seize the Greenpeace vessel was also a signal of its Arctic intentions. The activists on board the vessel were on a mission to protest Russian oil drilling, which Greenpeace sees as a threat to the Arctic environment. But Russia’s position on Arctic oil fields has been “drill, baby, drill,” says Corell. “They see the region as their economic future and will do everything to exploit it.” Thus the furious response to the Greenpeace mission, which was cut short when Russian troops arrested all 30 people on board. All of them are now in jail on charges of “hooliganism,” which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. And they do not have any option of skipping their day in court.