War Crimes at Sea: Shelling of Merchant Ships in Ukraine’s Territorial Waters

The large-scale military operations, which intensified on 24 February after the incursion of Russian troops into the territory of Ukraine, are continuing not only on land, but also at sea.

Actions that violate IHL are dangerous for the civilian population and civilian objects and the consequences of the likely violations of IHL exacerbate the already severe humanitarian catastrophe caused by armed conflict, and should receive the sustained attention of the international community. Investigators from “Truth Hounds”, a CSP member have established that a number of military operations at sea violated international humanitarian law (IHL) and are likely to qualify as war crimes. 

On the morning of 24 February 2022, Russian troops crossed the administrative border between the Kherson region and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as well as the state border between the Russian Federation and Ukraine in the North and Northeast of Ukraine. Almost immediately afterwards, armed conflict spread – including at sea. 

On 24 and 25 February, Russian warship fired at three foreign merchant ships. Merchant ships are civilian objects and accordingly may not lawfully be the objects of attack. The crew members of merchant ships are civilians (Article 50 of the Geneva Convention IV - GC IV) and are not, therefore, lawful targets of attack. GC IV and Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions (AP I), as well as customary rules of IHL, guarantee the protection of merchant ships and their crew. The targeted merchant ships were flying the flags of countries which are not party to the conflict. 

In addition, Russian Navy vessels seized the merchant ships "Afina," and "Princess Nikol," sailing under the Ukrainian flag transporting grain to Romania.

The shelling of the ships by the Russian air force qualify as serious violations of IHL because they amount to deliberate attacks on a civilian object (under the ambit of Article 85(3) (a) AP I and Article 8(2)(b)(ii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court) or, unless intent can be established beyond reasonable doubt, as an indiscriminate attack that caused damage to a civilian object and potentially endangered the environment (under the ambit of Article 85(3)(b) of AP I and Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute).


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Photo credit: https://www.iphronline.org/russian-war-crimes-at-sea.html

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