It’s often said that one way to get away with murder is to do it in international waters. But is this really the case? When sailing across the oceans, the application of laws, the jurisdiction of various law enforcement agencies and who to turn to should you need to prosecute becomes a complex topic. Thankfully it’s not a new problem, so there are different boundaries and limits that apply. Some of these are clearly defined, but some are a little more fuzzy.
Firstly, let’s look at the area each country is responsible for. Each nation has claimed rights over not only it’s land, but the ocean surrounding it too. This is an important part of enforcing borders and managing commercial interests. Where some countries are wealthy because of the resources their land provides, others’ wealth comes from the ocean, or what lies beneath it.
The territorial waters are those closest to the coast, extending 12 Nautical Miles (around 22 kilometres). Within this area, all the laws of the nation apply to everything on, and under the sea, and they have the right to enforce these laws. As you move further from the coast, you leave the territorial waters but remain in the Exclusive Economic Zone. While nations can’t stop you sailing through this area, any resources that may be found including fishing, mining and oil exploration are under the control of that nation.
Beyond 200 Nautical Miles, around 380 kilometres, you enter the area known as ‘International Waters’. In these waters, the laws of any one nation won’t apply. It is from this grey area that the urban myth was born. Fortunately, it’s not actually the wild west that people envisage when they speak of International Waters.
One of the earliest branches of the United Nations was the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), charged with bringing the interests of every nation together in order to manage the safe, secure and efficient shipping of goods across the world. Their goal is to have their regulations universally adopted and universally implemented, ensuring a level playing field for businesses world-wide. With regard to maritime law, the IMO describes standards that a ship needs to meet in order to transport goods from country to country. One of the most important parts of this is the ship’s flag.
When a ship is built, it is registered with the owner’s country of choice. Each country has it’s own set of rules that the ship needs to comply with, and when registered the ship is entitled to fly the flag of their nation. These rules imposed by the ‘Flag State’ must at least meet those set by the IMO, and in many cases the country’s rules are stricter. The choice of a ship’s flag can have a huge effect on the running costs of the vessel including maintenance, crew and insurance, and may also affect commercial interests for example if a certain country’s vessels are restricted from entering another nation’s waters.
As a ship is representing their Flag State when trading between nations, their country of registry has an interest in what happens on board while conducting this trade. To ensure their interests are protected each nation’s laws will apply on vessels when sailing in International Waters, and they will be responsible for investigating any incident where laws may have been broken. Essentially, the ship itself becomes an extension of the nation whose flag they fly. This sounds simple enough, but there are exceptions.
FBI Authority On Cruise Ships
The United States of America has extended their FBI’s authority to include quite a broad range of situations, going beyond vessels that fly their flag. They will investigate crimes on a ship that is not USA flagged, but US owned. They will investigate crimes committed by or against a US national, any crime in their territorial waters and also any crime that’s committed on a ship departing from or arriving in a US port. By having such far-reaching policies, conflicts may arise with other governments particularly when their citizens are involved, or when the ship is US owned but flagged in a different country. However, these protections do give peace of mind to US citizens travelling on any ship.
Cruise Line Policy
In addition to a ship’s flag state laws, company policies add another layer of rules and regulations with which everyone must comply. Particularly for cruise ships where so many people from different places come together in a small area, it’s important that the ‘society’ on board is well-managed. This is to ensure the safety and security of the vessel, prevent travellers disturbing others, and then to maximise profit! It is a business after all.
As these rules still need to follow the laws of the flag state or countries the ship visits, they can vary depending on the sailing area. The most noticeable things for guests are with things like the on-board casino, shops and alcohol sales, or if taxes need to be applied to purchases.
As you can see, there is a great deal of work that goes into making sure a nation’s and company’s interests are being looked after when operating internationally. Any crime committed at sea will be met with first the ship’s team, the vessel’s flag state and usually the local law enforcement at the next port the ship calls in. Depending on the nationality of those involved, their own law enforcement agencies may also become involved. So no matter what the urban myth says, you won’t get away with murder on the high seas!
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