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Dutch bring Greenpeace case to little-known tribunal with reaching mandate in maritime cases

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BERLIN - The Netherlands asked an international tribunal Wednesday for the release of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise and the activists who were on board when it was seized Sept. 18 by the Russian coast guard after a protest near a Gazprom-owned oil rig. Here's a look at the case and the tribunal:


Dutch attorneys say Russians had no valid reason to board the vessel without permission, thus committing an "internationally wrongful act." They argue all moves that followed — including transferring the ship to Russian waters and arresting those on board —were thus also "internationally wrongful."


Russia maintains the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, based in Hamburg, has no jurisdiction. It argues that even though Moscow ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it stipulated it would not accept arbitration on cases it considered national sovereignty matters.


The court first needs to decide whether it has jurisdiction, based on Russia's claim. It will then have to decide on the arguments advanced by the Netherlands, and on the Dutch request to order the immediate release of the ship and those who had been on board: 28 Greenpeace activists, a Russian photographer and a British videographer. They are nationals of 19 countries, including the U.S., Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand.


The court said it expects to issue its ruling on Nov. 22.


The tribunal was created in 1996 to rule on disputes arising from the application of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention replaced the customary idea of the "freedom of the seas" that limited a nation's rights to within three nautical miles of its coastline. Everything beyond the three-mile limit was considered international waters. As nations in the 20th century sought to lay economic claims ever further out to sea, they held a series of conferences to define what rights and responsibilities each nation has when using the world's oceans, a process that concluded in the 1982 convention.


It has 21 members who are all experts in the field. Their terms last for nine years. One-third of the judges are elected by the state parties to the convention every three years.


The tribunal states that "parties to a case have to accept the jurisdiction of the tribunal before the case is dealt with." Its verdicts are binding and there is no appeal, but the tribunal has no means of enforcing its decisions.


In its 17-year history only 22 cases have been submitted to the tribunal. A number have involved territorial claims or infringement by fishing vessels in waters claimed by different countries.


Although Russia has refused to take part in this case, it has ratified the Convention on the Law of the Sea, as has the Netherlands. About 20 countries have not signed on to the tribunal — most notably the United States. The U.S. helped shape the convention, but the implementing treaty was never ratified by the Senate — a requirement under the U.S. Constitution — because various administrations didn't think they could muster two-thirds support.


Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.

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