Russia is casting around for legal measures it can use against Greenpeace. To any reasonable person the accusation of piracy is ludicrous. Russia has come to it because there is no other charge over which it can claim jurisdiction.
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Russia has ratified and is in force, the criminal jurisdiction of a coastal state operates only within its territorial sea of up to twelve miles. Beyond that it may have an exclusive economic zone of up to two hundred miles, and a continental shelf may extend even beyond that; but within those zones the rights of coastal states are limited to jurisdiction over economic activity and mineral exploitation.
The Russians appear very aware of the legal position. When the Greenpeace activists were first arrested, I heard on BBC World Service radio here in Accra a Russian government spokesman say the vessel appeared to be towing a seismic buoy. Greenpeace explained it was a survival pod. But the point is, if it had been a seismic buoy, that would have been an economic activity which the Russian government is indeed entitled to regulate, so it was s thought out pretext (though I have no doubt a dishonest one).
Obviously the argument that they were engaged in unlawful economic activity may have justified the original arrest but quickly falls. What else is left? The seas above the exclusive economic zone are part of the High Seas – a fact often misunderstood. The only criminal activity on the High Seas over which a state other than the flag state of the vessel can claim jurisdiction is piracy. So if the Russians want to bring charges, it is piracy or nothing.
Of course any sensible government would opt for nothing, and accept that demonstrations happen. The Russian government is not sensible in that sense, and would far rather throw away the international kudos gained over Syria, than admit for one second that Putin is not in complete macho control of absolutely everything.
The stupid thing about all this is that Russia has every legal right to be drilling for oil in the Arctic, a great deal of which is rightly within Russia’s exclusive economic zone. The Russians have the right to drill, and Greenpeace have the right to protest about it.
What this is not, is piracy. Greenpeace were not intending to steal or damage any rig, vessel or cargo, or to commit violence. They were just protesting. The definition of piracy in UNCLOS is quite clear:
Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).
Plainly this is not piracy.