UN court: Russia must free detained Ukraine ships, sailors

Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors and three naval vessels off the Crimea peninsula late last year. (File/AFP)
Updated 25 May 2019

UN court: Russia must free detained Ukraine ships, sailors

  • The Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea delivered its ruling Saturday on the case Ukraine brought against Russia
  • The confrontation in the Kerch Strait marked a flashpoint in the simmering conflict over Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula

BERLIN: A UN maritime tribunal ruled Saturday that Russia must immediately release three Ukrainian naval vessels it captured in November and free the 24 sailors it detained.
The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea issued its order at its Hamburg headquarters following a hearing earlier this month. Russia stayed away from both the hearing and Saturday's session.
Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that Russia could send a signal of "real readiness to stop the conflict with Ukraine" by complying with the order. Russia didn't immediately specify what it would do, but made clear that it still believes the tribunal is the wrong place to address the dispute.
The confrontation in the Kerch Strait, which links the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, marked a flashpoint in the simmering conflict over Russia's 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Russia seized Crimea in a move that Ukraine and most of the world view as illegal. The Kerch Strait separates Crimea from mainland Russia.
Russia had argued that the rights Ukraine claims in the case don't apply because they are covered by an exception for military activity.
Kiev's lawyers contest this claim, saying Russia itself previously described the arrest as a law enforcement operation.
The tribunal sided with Ukraine's argument on that point. But tribunal President Jin-Hyun Paik said both parties should "refrain from taking any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute."
He said Russia must return the ships to Ukrainian custody and allow the servicemen to go home. The decision was a 19-1 vote, with a Russian judge dissenting.
The tribunal "does not consider it necessary to require (Russia) to suspend criminal proceedings against the 24 detained Ukrainian servicemen and refrain from initiating new proceedings," Paik added. Kiev had called for legal proceedings to be ended.
The tribunal's decisions are legally binding, but it has no power to enforce them. It called for both sides to report back on their compliance by June 25.
Zelenskiy said when he took office on Monday that the main goal of his presidency is to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been fighting Russia-backed separatists for five years in a conflict that has left at least 13,000 dead.
On Saturday, Zelenskiy said on Twitter that "Russia's fulfillment of the order ... could be a first signal from the side of the Russian leadership of real readiness to stop the conflict with Ukraine. In this way, Russia could take a step toward unblocking talks and resolving in a civilized way problems that it created."
"We'll see what path the Kremlin will choose," he added.
The Russian Foreign Ministry didn't address details of the order to release the ships and sailors. It underlined in a statement its argument that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea's dispute resolution procedures can't be applied to this dispute.
In subsequent arbitration proceedings at the tribunal, "we intend to consistently defend our position, including the lack of jurisdiction," it said.


Kabul expects US to share peace deal details

Updated 58 min 50 sec ago

Kabul expects US to share peace deal details

  • Afghan government excluded from all rounds of talks
  • Washington is keen for the deal to be signed before Sept. 1

KABUL: Afghanistan said on Saturday it expects the US to share details of a peace deal with the Taliban before it is signed, having been excluded from all rounds of talks.

US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has led diplomats through at least nine rounds of talks with members of the armed group in Qatar since last summer.

A deal could pave the way for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and end almost two decades of fighting in the country.

But President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been left out of the talks because of objections from the Taliban, which views his regime as a puppet of the West.

The current round of discussions has been described as crucial because, according to present and former Taliban officials, both parties are expected to soon sign a deal.

“The Afghan government expects that it (agreement) will be shared before it is finalized for signing,” Ghani’s chief spokesman, Sediq Seddiqi, told Arab News.

He said Kabul could not say when the deal would be signed, and that troops’ departure would be condition-based and not based on a timeline set by the Taliban.

“Well, force reduction will be based on conditions, the terrorist threat is potential and we must fight it together for our common safety and in order to prevent any major terrorist attacks on the world’s capitals. 

“We must deny terrorists from holding free ground in Afghanistan and turning it into a safe haven. The presence of some forces, and continued and meaningful support to the Afghan security and defense forces, will be key to our success.”

The Taliban wants all foreign troops to leave Afghanistan within a set timetable and, in return, the group says it will not allow Afghan soil to be used against any foreign country or US interests.

Afghan and US officials have warned against a total pullout of troops because, they argue, the Taliban will try to regain power by force and the country will slide back into chaos after troops leave.

But some say a continued presence will prolong the conflict, as neighboring powers oppose the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and see it as a trigger for extremism.

The Taliban could not be reached immediately for comment about media reports, which cited the group’s former and current officials as saying that a deal with Washington was imminent.

“We have an agreement on a timeframe for the withdrawal,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s spokesman for the Qatar talks, told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper. “Discussions are now focused on its implementation mechanism. We have had general discussions today,” he added, referring to current discussions in Doha. “Tomorrow, we shall have discussions on the implementation part.”

Another Taliban spokesman said the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Scott Miller, had taken part in the current talks which, according to some observers, showed the importance of the discussions and the possibility of a final deal.

Washington is keen for the deal to be signed before Sept. 1, weeks ahead of a crucial and controversial presidential poll in Afghanistan. 

Ghani, who is standing for re-election, says the polls are his priority. Some politicians believe that peace will have to come first and that the vote will have to be delayed.

Abdul Satar Saadat, who served as an adviser to Ghani, said the Taliban and US were racing against time as any delay would damage trust between the two and prompt the Taliban to fight for another five years.

“Because of this both sides are doing their utmost to sign the deal, delay the polls and begin an intra-Afghan dialogue like Oslo,” he told Arab News.