Opinion: War Crimes Against Seafarers Warrant Accountability

An operative with Russia's GRU intelligence service shows damage to the merchant ship Azburg (Russian state media)

Published Apr 15, 2022 6:46 PM by Human Rights at Sea

Six weeks into the war between Russia and Ukraine, and the intensity of the conflict shows no chance of de-escalation. Seafarers remain in the firing line. 

The number of civilian deaths is rising exponentially day by day, and incidents of indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure continue.

Trapped in a warzone, over 1000 seafarers are stranded in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov on board foreign-flagged vessels, with low levels of provisions, lack of drinking water and medical supplies. As already reported, an estimated 100 foreign-flagged vessels are caught in the direct line of hostilities amidst an imposed Russian blockade and reported sea mines, with limited prospects for evacuation. 

Since the war started, and from available information, a seafarer has died of a missile attack, Russian armed forces have reportedly targeted merchant ships, and this week, a foreign-flagged vessel sank after being heavily and indiscriminately attacked by a missile. This is only the information reported and verified to date. The true scale of the war’s impact on seafarers and shipping will only be measured once the conflict ends.

War crimes against seafarers and merchant vessels

The Dominica-flagged general cargo Azburg (IMO number 9102899) was indiscriminately attacked, sank and completely destroyed while at berth in Mariupol, Ukraine, on the 3rd of April, according to the flag state authority.  The crew was evacuated onto nearby vessels immediately, with one crew member requiring medical treatment. 

Every day seafarers in Ukraine ports fear for their lives, physical security, and mental well-being. Attacks such as the one evidenced against the Bangladeshi bulk carrier Banglar Samriddhi (IMO 9793832) that killed the ship’s third engineer and the Dominica flagged Azburg violate the laws of war and constitute war crimes. There have been reports that at least three more merchant vessels have been attacked to date, including a Panamanian bulk carrier and a Moldovan flagged tanker.

War crimes are not only the indiscriminate attack against civilians but the indiscriminate attacks against civilian objects and civilian infrastructure. 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. It is also extremely unlikely that there is any concrete or direct military advantage to be anticipated by such attacks on ships and the crew, at least in the two cases mentioned above, that would justify their attack under the principle of proportionality.

Importantly, international law regulates the seizure and capture of enemy merchant vessels at sea. There have been reports that the Russian Navy seized and subsequently released two Ukrainian flagged merchant ships in early February while en route from Ukraine to Romania. Detaining and capturing enemy merchant ships might be permissible under international law, but the law requires that the private individuals who own the vessel receive compensation for the seizure and any destruction of property.

In the context of this wider humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine, we call on the international community and competent institutions to take strong action towards accountability and 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. These are civilian victims, too, with a right to obtain justice.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.