Feature Story- On September 18th, the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise was involved in a peaceful protest at Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform, which is expected to become the first to produce oil from ice filled Arctic seas.
Over a day later, the Russian Coast Guard boarded the ship and seized the crew at gunpoint. The ship was then towed to the port of Murmansk. The crew of the Arctic Sunrise were held without charge during this time.
28 Greenpeace International activists, as well as a freelance videographer and a freelance photographer, have now been charged with piracy and face up to 15 years in prison.
A series of allegations have been made about Greenpeace International, its activists and the peaceful protest at the Prirazlomnaya platform. This blog contains Greenpeace’s response to these allegations as well as links to further information.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has charged all 30 individuals from the Arctic Sunrise with piracy committed by an organised group, a serious crime which carries a custodial sentence of up to 15 years in prison. A series of Russian and international law experts have strongly rejected the application of this charge to Greenpeace International’s peaceful protest. Their views can be read here.
Under the Russian Criminal Code, piracy can only be committed against a vessel, not an oil platform such as Prirazlomnaya, and applies only when seeking with violence or threats thereof to seize property – not to a peaceful protest. This is clear from Arcticle 227.
Similary, under international law piracy by definition can only apply to violent acts against ships or aircraft committed for private ends – not peaceful protests against oil platforms carried out to protect the environment. See Article 101 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The reference to piracy may be an effort to create a retroactive justification for the boarding of the vessel outside territorial waters. Piracy is one of the few grounds on which such a boarding is permitted.
Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo said:
“Peaceful activism is crucial when governments around the world have failed to respond to dire scientific warnings about the consequences of climate change in the Arctic and elsewhere.
“Any charge of piracy against peaceful activists has no merit in international law. We will not be intimidated or silenced by these absurd accusations and demand the immediate release of our activists.”
Activists ‘posed a threat’ to oil platform and surrounding environment
Both Gazprom officials and Russian authorities have suggested that the Greenpeace International activists may have posed a threat to the safe operation of the rig, or even the Arctic environment itself in the course of the peaceful protest.
Our activists are fully trained to conduct this kind of protest entirely safely. Neither the climbers nor the inflatable boats posed any risk to the vast oil platform, which is designed to withstand being hit by large chunks of ice and even (according to Gazprom itself) a direct hit from a torpedo. The activists carried nothing more than banners and ropes, and yet were met with knives and guns.
Greenpeace inflatables ‘rammed’ Russian coast guard
A recent statement from Russian authorities states that “investigators are now identifying the people who deliberately rammed the coast guard boats preventing the coast guards from doing their job. By these actions the accused made an attempt on lives and health of the representatives of the authority.”
Greenpeace International has a record of entirely peaceful protest at sea stretching over 40 years, and this action was carried out according to these strong principles. Video footage released by the Investigative Committee itself (viewable here) clearly shows that Greenpeace inflatables posed no danger to the Russian Coast Guard. At one point a Greenpeace boat touches the side of a Coast Guard vessel at a slow speed, before turning 180 degrees. To suggest that any of these encounters represented a risk to the safety or lives of the Russian Coast Guard is absurd. Greenpeace views this as an attempt to deflect attention from the growing campaign in Russia and around the world to release the Arctic 30.
A recent statement from Russia’s Investigative committee states that “during the examination of the ship the investigators seized narcotics (presumably opium straw and morphine)”.
Greenpeace absolutely rejects any suggestion that illegal drugs were present on the Arctic Sunrise. The ship had on board a fully qualified doctor with over ten years’ experience in Russian hospitals. Certain medical supplies are kept in a safe that only the captain and the doctor have access to, supplies which must be carried under maritime law. We know that the safe was broken into by the Russian authorities during the searching of the ship. We can only assume these are the medical supplies that the Russian security services are referring to.
‘Divers in the water’
According to media reports, Gazprom officials have claimed that “There were people working underwater [at the time of the protest] and any accident could have led to a catastrophe,” The veracity of this statement is seriously undermined by the fact that shots were fired from the platform itself, by unknown persons. If divers were present, this would have posed a far greater threat to their safety than a peaceful protest above the water level. In addition, there were no support boats nearby, nor was there an y evidence of diving flags, which would have been expected during this process.
The Arctic Sunrise was ‘not in international waters’
‘The FSB has rejected the environmental campaign group’s assertion that the ship was in international waters when it was seized.’ (EN)
At the time of the boarding, the Arctic Sunrise was circling Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform at the three nautical mile limit, inside international waters. Coordinates confirm that the ship was inside of Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – and not Russian territorial waters – making this an illegal boarding by the Russian Coast Guard.
Legally speaking, the EEZ is similar to the high seas. Foreign vessels have a right to freedom of navigation there – they can enter without permission and go anywhere they want.
The ship’s coordinates at the time of arrest were 69 19.86’N 057 16.56’E, showing that the vessel was clearly outside of Russia’s territorial waters. This is 34 nautical miles from the Russian coast. These coordinates were received from ship’s security alert system and here are the coordinates from the ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS).
Greenpeace ‘safety pod’
As part of this protest, Greenpeace International carried a ‘safety pod’ to the Gazprom platform to shield the activists from things like water cannons.
According to Russian media reports, Gazprom has described the pod as ‘resembling a bomb’. The pod is a big foam tube measuring 3 meters long by 2 meters wide (about the size of a Mini), is painted in bright colours, and was made following a public competition.
Non-violence has been enshrined at the core of Greenpeace for more than 40 years. We engage in peaceful protests to expose environmental crimes. We posed no safety threat.
Illegal scientific research activities
According to some reports, Russian authorities suspect that Greenpeace International was engaged in unauthorised marine scientific research near the Prirazlomnaya.
Greenpeace has a long tradition of facilitating research from its vessels, but that was not the case this time. Last year Greenpeace International conducted scientific work with a two-person submarine in the Chukchi Sea in the Alaskan Arctic, operating from the Esperanza. Here, we discovered abundant corals in the Arctic waters right where Shell was planning to drill for oil. Last year, the Arctic Sunrise facilitated research on the melting Arctic Sea ice that hit a record low in 2012.
The Arctic Sunrise is currently in the Russian Arctic to expose and protest against the reckless oil rush unfolding there. No scientific research was conducted. In any event, suspicion of unauthorised scientific research is not recognised as a valid ground to board a foreign vessel in the EEZ.
Activists are ‘guests’, not arrested
‘Greenpeace activists were rescued and are not arrested’ (RU)
Greenpeace International activists Sini & Marco were taken into custody by Coast Guard agents during the peaceful protest at the Prirazlomnaya platform. They were then held for more than 24 hours against their will on board a Coast Guard ship. Whilst on board this vessel, crew from the Arctic Sunrise had to supply Sini and Marco with food and clothing, hardly a standard procedure for people apparently staying as “guests.”