On September 18, Greenpeace activists in the Pechora Sea approached Russia’s first offshore Arctic oil platform, the Prirazlomnaya. Two activists then attempted to scale the rig. 

Alerted, the Russian coast guard rammed the rafts that surrounded the Greenpeace vessel, the Arctic Sunrise, firing warning shots over the boat and shooting the activists with water cannons. Two activists who attempted to scale the platform were immediately arrested.

The following day the coast guard returned by helicopter, boarded the Greenpeace ship, detained the remaining 28 activists and towed the boat to Murmansk. On September 24, numerous media releases left little doubt that the activists would be charged with piracy. And by October 3, all of the crew had been so charged.

Much of the international discussion about the incident so far has revolved around legal issues, particularly questions of jurisdiction. Much of it has focused on interpretations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – about the applicability of the charge of piracy and of the legality (or otherwise) of the Russian coast guard’s boarding and seizure of the Greenpeace vessel. 

Many, obviously, have contested the validity of the piracy charges. (To add to the confusion, Russia refused to prosecute actual Somali pirates who seized a Russian oil rig in 2010 because, it said at the time, international law was too unclear about these matters.) 

Whatever their legal or moral status, these actions are not without precedent. In February this year, the US Court of Appeal upheld a conviction of piracy against anti-whaling activists, although – it must be said – the tactics of these activists were substantially different from that employed by the crew of the Arctic Sunrise.

And there have, of course, been more heavy-handed – even dire – "defences" against environmentalist activism, the most notorious of which was the sinking of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior by the French intelligence agency, the DGSE, in 1985.

But if there has been disagreement about the legal or ethical facts here – or their interpretation – there should be less debate about the incident in terms of public perception. The sight of unarmed activists on their knees, held at gunpoint, detained without charge and then charged with an offence that carries a possible 15-year prison sentence, might have the effect of drawing attention to what many believe to be an issue of crucial public concern. There is ample indication to suggest that that is precisely what is happening. 

Outside Russia, there has been an uncharacteristic outpouring of support for the activists, with protests being held in 45 countries. A number of experts on maritime and international law have voiced criticisms both of procedural issues and the verdict, a handful circulating a public statement of concern. 

Amnesty International has also registered its dissatisfaction with the charges and detentions, and the Dutch government has signalled its intent to launch arbitration proceedings against Russia under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. There have also been voices of concern within Russia (even if they do not represent the majority viewpoint), with protests outside Gazprom’s Moscow offices and statements by public figures. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin said of the protesters that it was "completely obvious that they are not pirates".

It is difficult to speculate on the long-term effects of these events, but it is worth remembering that in his march from Ahmedabad to Dandi in 1930, Ghandi’s desire was to be arrested. The same was true of the anti-segregation sit-in participants in Nashville in 1960. 

It may not have been the Greenpeace protesters’ intent, but there is ample precedent to suggest that the arrest of unarmed civil disobedients who have galvanised the public’s attention rarely works in the interests of the arresting powers. Whether that turns out to be the case here remains uncertain.

Dr Chris Fleming is a senior lecturer in Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney

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