In my previous post I explained how the European Court’s Article 1 jurisprudence allows it to avoid the question of sovereignty over Crimea, since it can ground Russia’s jurisdiction over the territory, and thus the applicability of the ECHR, simply on the fact of its control and need not say anything else. But there are at least two issues on the merits of the Ukraine v. Russia re Crimea case that could directly engage the question of sovereignty over the territory. As a preliminary matter, I now need to say that I have not had the benefit of reading the pleadings of either party in the case – the Court has an inexplicable policy of not putting the pleadings online, but only allowing them to be consulted in its building in Strasbourg. That said, I am reasonably certain that the two issues I examine here are properly raised in the case. I will therefore now turn to the first of these, the mass imposition of Russian citizenship on the people of Crimea.
Does the European Court of Human Rights Have to Decide on Sovereignty over Crimea? Part I: Jurisdiction in Article 1 ECHR
On 11 September the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held oral hearings on the admissibility of the interstate claim Ukraine brought against Russia regarding Crimea (no. 20958/14). The webcast of the hearing is available here. There are many different admissibility issues that the case raises, some of them heavily factual (e.g. the existence of an administrative practice on the part of Russia that makes individual recourse to domestic remedies impossible). The case may well flounder on one of them. But the one issue that concerns me here is simply this: should the European Court make any pronouncements on whether it is Ukraine or Russia who is the rightful sovereign of Crimea?
To be clear, sovereignty over Crimea is not to my mind a legally difficult question – Russia’s annexation of Crimea was as clearly illegal as anything can be. But there is wider, much more fraught, question of principle and prudence: should international human rights bodies pronounce on issues which, while capable of legal determination, are not part of their central mission of human rights protection and may negatively affect that mission? This is especially the case in situations in which it is entirely predictable that, in the political context, any such pronouncement would provoke intense backlash, even possibly leading to Russia’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe.
In a May 25, 2019 interlocutory decision, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) prescribed provisional measures in the case brought by Ukraine against Russia, ordering Russia to release three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 Ukrainian service members seized on November 25, 2018 in an incident in the Kerch Strait. During the incident last fall, Russian Coast Guard forces, operating in concert with a Russian naval corvette and a military aircraft, fired on two Ukrainian warships and a naval auxiliary as they attempted to transit the strait against the orders of Russian authorities. The ships and their crews were captured and remain in detention in Russia, charged with violating Russian criminal law.
On April 29, Ukraine filed a case with ITLOS requesting provisional measures to order their immediate release. Such measures are authorized under article 290 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in urgent situations to prevent a real and imminent risk of irreparable prejudice to the rights of a party, in this case Ukraine. Article 290(5) permits such measures before the merits of the case so long as the Tribunal has prima facie jurisdiction in the case. The key question was whether the Russia’s operation constituted a “military activity,” and was therefore exempt from jurisdiction in accordance with a previous Russian declaration under article 298 of UNCLOS. The Tribunal determined that Russia’s operations were not a military activity, but the decision is likely to generate unintended consequences.
The ITLOS order has effectively diminished the military activities exemption which will give pause to the 27 nations that have made such declarations, including China, France, Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom – and in the future, most likely the United States, which intends to make such a declaration once it accedes to the Convention. (The states are identified in paragraph 11 of Judge Gao’s separate opinion). In a decision that suggests outcome-based legal reasoning to constrain Russia, ITLOS questions the viability of the military activities exemption based on any rationale.
As part of its analysis for jurisdiction, the Tribunal avoided a determination on whether there was an armed conflict between the two states, as would appear from the application of the Geneva Conventions in article 2 common, and as I suggested in an earlier piece. Instead, the ITLOS order accepts without analysis that Ukraine and Russia are interacting during a time of peace, a dubious assumption. In doing so, the Tribunal vindicates two important rights that will be welcomed by maritime powers: sovereign immunity of warships and other government vessels and the peacetime right of freedom of navigation by Ukrainian military vessels. But in reaching this conclusion, the Tribunal diminished the military activities exemption. In a departure from the broader understanding of military activities evident in the 2016 Philippines v. China arbitration, the Tribunal found that the confrontation over innocent passage was a navigational issue, rather than one concerning a military activity, because innocent passage is a right enjoyed by all ships. The Tribunal also determined that Russia’s temporary suspension of innocent passage declared conveniently to halt the transit of Ukrainian warships was a law enforcement activity rather than a military activity. These factors led the Tribunal to conclude that Russia’s actions were “in the context of a law enforcement operation rather than a military operation.”
On Sunday 25 November 2018 Russian coast guard patrol boats, including the Don and the 630-ton Izumrud, first intercepted and later fired on three Ukrainian naval ships near the entrance to the Kerch Strait. Two Ukrainian sailors were injured, the Ukrainian ships seized and the crews arrested. The attack has been roundly condemned in the United States and around the world.
The Russian ships intercepted two Ukrainian Gyurza-M-class artillery boats, Berdyansk and Nikopol and a tugboat, Yany Kapu, as they sailed toward the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. Russian forces seized the vessels and arrested 24 crew members. The Don twice rammed the tugboat and the Russian vessels opened fire on the two smaller Ukrainian warships. The incident occurred in the territorial sea along the approaches to the Kerch Strait, which is bordered in the east by Russia and in the west by Russian-occupied Ukrainian Crimea. The Russian government stated that its forces fired only after the Ukrainian ships violated articles 19 and 21 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concerning innocent passage in the territorial sea.
Exploring the legal circumstances of the incident requires selection between peacetime rules of the law of the sea and the law of naval warfare, which applies to international armed conflicts. This post concludes that the actual incident on the water is part of a continuing aggression by Russia against Ukraine, in violation of the UN Charter. While unlawful as a matter of the jus ad bellum, the incident would be a lawful in bello use of force by Russia in accordance with the law of naval warfare, notwithstanding Russia’s unlawful invasion of Crimea in 2014 or subsequent unlawful treatment of the Ukrainian sailors as common criminals rather than prisoners of war. In this case the law of naval warfare is lex specialis and supplants mutatis mutandis the peacetime rules of the international law of the sea for Russia and the Ukraine.
In February-March 2014, Crimea experienced what is here neutrally referred to as a ‘change of effective sovereign’ (as conceded by Ukraine itself). Subsequent events have given rise to at least nine investment claims by Ukrainian nationals against Russia in connection with their investments in Crimea made prior to the ‘change of effective sovereign’. Substantively, all cases pivot on alleged violations of the expropriation and FET (fair & equitable treatment) clauses of the 1998 Russia-Ukraine BIT. Before getting there, however, a series of jurisdictional hurdles need to be overcome. Firstly, whether the scope of the BIT covers also de facto (as opposed to de jure) territory. Thus, whether under the BIT, Crimea may be understood as Russian territory. Secondly, the BIT’s temporal and personal ambit of application. That is to say, whether Ukrainian nationals and their businesses existing in Crimea prior to the ‘change of effective sovereign’ may qualify, respectively, as foreign Ukrainian investors and investments in Russia. It is doubtful that these questions which, are inevitably intertwined with the public international issue of the legality of the ‘change of sovereign’, can be satisfactorily answered through ‘effective interpretations’ and/or drawing analogies from human rights law. The scope and rationale of investment law differs from that of the latter; the promotion and protection of bilateral business is pursued for the benefit of economic growth, while the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of persons is undertaken for the good of human kind. In fact, it is reflected in the standard dispute settlement mechanism envisaged i.e. private ad hoc arbitration v standing international court.
Jurisdictional decisions in five proceedings have recently been rendered. To date, none of these have been made public. Nevertheless, important passages of their reasoning have been uncovered by trusted sources. These allow for a preliminary review of the tribunals’ assessment of the key legal issues involved. Read the rest of this entry…
(Non-)Recognition of De Facto Regimes in Case Law of the European Court of Human Rights: Implications for Cases Involving Crimea and Eastern Ukraine
In an increasing number of cases, the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’, ‘the Court’) has been dealing with the question of the application of the European Convention on Human Rights (‘ECHR’, ‘Convention’) on territories which are outside the control of the state to which they belong. Such lack of control is either because of the occupation by a foreign state or because of the control by a separatist movement, as a rule, established and/or existing with the aid of a foreign state. One of the issues that arises in this context is the (non-)recognition of the regime that exercises control over such territory (the de facto regime).
This blog post looks at the Court’s existing approaches to the (non-)recognition of de facto regimes. It then discusses the implication of this approach for cases involving Eastern Ukraine and Crimea that may come before the Court and require it to deal with the question of (non-)recognition.
The issue of (non-)recognition becomes particularly relevant when the Court is called on to assess proceedings conducted by the courts of a de facto regime in the light of the Convention. The Court has dealt with the issue of (non-)recognition when deciding on the exhaustion of domestic remedies at the admissibility stage, and on claims relating to freedom from arbitrary detention and the right to a fair trial at the merits stage. Read the rest of this entry…