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HomeMaritime LawAre there really no laws at sea?

Are there really no laws at sea?

It’s a cliched scene from a crime thriller: the wily killer invites his victim on a cruise, waits until they reach the middle of the ocean, and disposes of them. The perfect crime. Due to a legal loophole, this heinous act of murder is perfectly legal – or is it?

Although the (mostly) empty expanses of the seas and oceans may seem like a watery desert bereft of civilization, there are still overlapping jurisdictions that apply to any who traverse the waters.

Here is a simplified overview.

Firstly, UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) of 1982 provides a wide-ranging set of regulations that say who can do what, and where. Of particular note to would-be criminals is the delineation of seas into different zones. These zones are known as:

  • Territorial sea – the first twelve nautical miles offshore
  • The contiguous zone – the next twelve nautical miles
  • The exclusive economic zone – up to 200-350 nm offshore
  • High seas – waters beyond the EEZ

Land stops and sea begins at the “baseline”, which is usually defined as the coastal low-water line. Immediately past this baseline begins the territorial sea, a zone of up to twelve nautical miles from the baseline.

In this zone, just as with inland waters such as lakes and rivers, the laws of the country apply. However, a foreign vessel must be permitted “innocent passage”, that is must be allowed to pass through unless she takes action “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state” (article 19).

The contiguous zone extends for a further twelve nautical miles and the coastal state is allowed to patrol this area and enact controls to prevent smuggling, human trafficking, and other infringements of “its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea” (article 33).

After this, from 24 nm offshore to 200-350 nm out, is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This zone is for the exclusive use of the coastal state to exploit natural resources such as fish, oil, offshore wind, and so on (articles 55-57; article 76).

The high seas are the areas beyond the EEZ, in which no country has exclusive rights. Any country may lay cables, fish, build artificial islands and structures, and conduct research (article 87).

So, what of our would-be criminals? Could he wait until the cruise ship left territorial waters to make his move? Thankfully not. The laws on board our hypothetical cruise ship, as with any ocean vessel, are set by the flag state.

Every ocean-going vessel is registered with a state and flies their flag. For example, a Malta-registered vessel would fly the Maltese flag and the flag state would be Malta.  Such a vessel would need to follow the laws of the relevant coastal state when in territorial waters and the laws of Malta when not.

The flag state is also responsible for “the construction, equipment, and seaworthiness of ships” as well as “the manning of ships, labor conditions, and the training of crews” amongst other standards (article 94).

As no flag state has legalized murder, it should be perfectly safe to enjoy your cruise.

Of course, there are many other conventions that concern the safety of vessels at sea. The SOLAS convention sets standards for constructing, equipping, and operating ships adequately. The MARPOL convention prevents pollution. The STCW ensures that crew are properly trained and the MLC ensures they are properly treated.

About the author:

Russell Henry Greenwood teaches Nautical English at the Jade University of Applied Sciences in Germany.



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