U.N. judges decline Ukraine request to order Russia to stop backing rebels

By Stephanie van den Berg

By Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - U.N. judges on Wednesday rejected a Ukrainian request to order Russia to stop supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, saying it did not meet requirements under an international terrorism treaty.

Pro-Russian forces rose up in Ukraine's east in 2014 after a popular uprising centred in the capital Kiev toppled the former Soviet republic's Moscow-backed president.

Ukraine asked the International Court of Justice last month to order Russia to stop backing forces in the conflict, arguing Moscow was violating a global treaty on terrorism financing and another international pact on discrimination.

The ICJ, which handles disputes between states, ruled that Ukraine had not presented sufficient evidence on the question of whether Moscow knew or intended that any alleged funds collected would be used to commit terrorist acts on Ukrainian soil.

The ruling was interim and does not mean the court has no jurisdiction in Ukraine’s allegation that Russia has funded terrorism. That issue will be considered when the court hears arguments from both sides, which could last years.

The ICJ’s decisions are final and cannot be appealed, but it has few means of enforcing decisions.

Russia has repeatedly denied sending troops or military equipment to eastern Ukraine and was expected to challenge the ICJ's writ in the dispute.

The ICJ did grant another request by Ukraine by ruling Moscow must halt alleged discrimination against ethnic Tatars in Crimea and ensure Ukrainian language education was available in the region annexed by Russia in 2014.

Moscow "must ... refrain from maintaining or imposing limitations in the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions", the court ruled.

It said Tatars must also have access to education in the Ukrainian language.

Russia has denied Kiev’s accusations that it has mistreated the Tatars since 2014. Moscow argues Ukraine was misapplying the treaties on terrorism and discrimination as a way to litigate against Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainian deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal told reporters at the court that the ruling was "a positive one" for Kiev. "We proved our position. We have a very good perspective for (the) hearings on the merits" in the case, she added.

Russia's ICJ delegation did not comment on Wednesday's ruling.

Russia's takeover of Crimea brought East-West tensions to their highest point since the Cold War, and subsequent fighting in eastern Ukraine since has killed more than 10,000 people.

(Writing by Anthony Deutsch; editing by Mark Heinrich)