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Russia’s targeting of merchant ships branded a war crime

Russia’s targeting of merchant ships branded a war crime
Sam Chambers April 14, 2022

Russia stands accused of committing war crimes against international seafarers and merchant vessels to add to a long list of offences due for investigation on day 50 of the war in eastern Europe.

The NGO Human Rights At Sea (HRAS) has branded Russia’s decision to target merchant ships, killing innocent seafarers in the process, as war crimes that ought to be prosectuted.

By Splash’s tally, 11 merchant ships have been fired upon in the opening 50 days of the war with two seafarers killed and a further number injured. A number of other ships have been detained by Russian forces with crews taken off the ships, while there remain many hundreds of seafarers stranded, afloat in the war zone, with dwindling provisions.

“War crimes are not only the indiscriminate attack against civilians but the indiscriminate attacks against civilian objects and civilian infrastructure,” HRAS pointed out in an update this week, adding: “International law regulating the conduct of hostilities explicitly prohibits attacks against merchant vessels flying the flag of neutral to the war states. The merchant ships at anchorage in those besieged ports are civilian objects by nature, location, purpose and use, and they make no contribution to military action. Any attack against them, like shelling, is thus strictly prohibited.”

HRAS also hit out at the Russian military’s decision to detain merchant ships in recent weeks, calling on the international community and competent institutions to help the Ukraine prosecutor, the International Criminal Court prosecutor and any other prosecutor and court mandated to hold war criminals to account in the collection of evidence.

“In doing so, war crimes committed against seafarers shall not be forgotten as these are civilian victims, too, with a right to obtain justice,” HRAS stated.

Overall Ukraine’s prosecutor’s office has said that almost 6,500 alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine are under investigation.

The heads of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) called last Friday for urgent action to protect seafarers and vessels stranded in Ukrainian ports and nearby waters.

In a joint letter to the heads of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), ILO director-general, Guy Ryder and IMO secretary-general, Kitack Lim, outlined the plight of seafarers on more than 100 trading vessels who are unable to leave the ports of Ukraine and nearby waters. According to the IMO, as many as 1,000 seafarers are trapped.

“As well as the dangers arising from bombardment, many of the ships concerned now lack food, fuel, fresh water and other vital supplies. The situation of the seafarers from many countries is becoming increasingly untenable as a result, presenting grave risks to their health and well-being,” the letter states.

On the ground, the Russian defence ministry has said that its invading forces have taken full control of the Mariupol, a battered port city on the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian officials have denied the conquest however.

The capture of Mariupol would give Russia full control of the Sea of Azov coast, and a secure overland bridge linking mainland Russia and pro-Russian separatist territory in the east with the Crimea peninsula that Moscow seized and annexed in 2014.