European Commissioner Janez Potočnik in Brussels in March 2013 (© ec.europa.eu)
The arrest of the Greenpeace crew and two journalists followed attempts by activists to scale an oil rig off Russia's Arctic coast in an attempt to attract attention to the potential impact of economic activities on the fragile Arctic environment.
While our immediate preoccupation is the continuing detention and the manifestly disproportionate charges brought against those detained, we should not lose from sight the issue that they were attracting attention to. It is one that we should all take very seriously - how to ensure that economic activities in the Arctic do not endanger the region’s fragile environment.
Climate change is already having significant impacts on the Arctic environment, and the exploitation of the region's natural resources poses an additional threat if it is not carried out in a sustainable way, with all necessary precautions in place and in consultation with the people who live there. We can't even begin to imagine the impact that a major oil spill would have on the Arctic environment, nor the difficulty and costs of trying to clean it up.
The EU is keen to step up its engagement with its Arctic partners, including Russia, to help meet the challenge of safeguarding the environment while ensuring the sustainable development of the Arctic region. We have funded projects and programmes to that end and will continue to do so in the future.
The events also raise questions relating to interpretation of the UN Law of the Sea Convention. The Netherlands, as flag state of the "Arctic Sunrise", has initiated arbitration procedures under the Law of the Sea Convention. We welcomed this step, which could clarify the underlying issue of the legality of the ship's seizure.
Perhaps more importantly, the Netherlands asked for the release of the ship, crew and journalists as a “provisional measure” pending clarification of the main legal issues. This would be a positive early outcome, not only for the detained and their families.
We have just learned that Russia will unfortunately not accept the arbitration procedure in this case. Russia claims not to be obliged to recognize the authority of the Law of the Sea Tribunal in disputes concerning “sovereign rights” and “jurisdiction".
While regretting this decision we note that Russia has declared itself “open to settlement” of the case. This gives hope for a positive outcome.
Janez Potočnik - European Parliament, Strasbourg, 23 October 2013