No law beyond the twelve mile limit

This morning the BBC had news that the MV Arctic Sea may have been hijacked in the Baltic and sailed through the Straits of Dover before vanishing. There is probably less to this than meets the eye – for all the speculation of pirates and illegal arms transfers, this looks like a commercial dispute being solved using Russian traditional law and custom. But it raises a more general point.

Summary goes something like this:

23 July: MV Arctic Sea leaves Finland with cargo of timber, bound for Bejaia, Algeria.

24 July: Off Oland in the Baltic, it is reportedly boarded by 10 armed men representing themselves as anti-drug police; they damage the ship’s radios before leaving later the same day. (According to Tass, that is.)

29 July: It contacts British coastguard before passing through the Dover Strait.

30 July: Last beacon contact with the MV Arctic Sea locates it in the Atlantic off Brest – this is confirmed shortly thereafter by a Portuguese naval patrol aircraft.

3 August: Interpol warns the coastguard that the vessel had been hijacked in the Baltic, and they should be alert when it passes through the Channel.

3-4 August: MV Arctic Sea should have passed the Straits of Gibraltar en route to Bejaia – it is not spotted doing so.

4 August: MV Arctic Sea is due to arrive at Bejaia. It doesn’t.

It’s difficult to realise just how ungoverned the seas are. The international shipping business generally settles its disputes by mutual agreement under English law, but that leaves them to govern themselves under any legal system they choose (the flag of convenience system). Even in theoretically regulated industries like fishing, quotas are routinely broken – not that the quotas are set at any realistic level for conserving stocks anyway – and fishing grounds literally scraped bare. There’s more or less no point to calling for a better European fishing policy now.

The most eyecatching threats from the ungoverned seas are piracy and terrorism. But maritime terrorism hasn’t really made it on to the high seas, presumably because of the complexity of a modern ship and the startling technical ineptitude of the average modern terrorist, and piracy is a minor irritant (and, in Somalia, a chance for the West’s navies to feel useful). Meanwhile, controlling smuggling, of people or drugs, is little more than a joke given the sheer volume of trade that flows through the world’s container ports every day. But much could still be done on pollution emissions, on safety standards and crew welfare, and even on maritime security, and Europe, as the world’s biggest economy and biggest overseas trader, is in an ideal place to do it. Too much of the sea surrounding Europe is exploited but not controlled, and this attitude needs to be overhauled – if necessary by a significant geographical expansion of the powers of nations under the law of the sea.

8 thoughts on “No law beyond the twelve mile limit

  1. There’s little need for yet more rules. The existing rules must be enforced with severe penalties. Any nation is free to forbid its nationals from owning foreign ships.

    With regards to piracy we need to face reality. This will go on until pirates are hanged and their ships sunk. This is indeed the prime example for a deficiency in enforcement, not in rules. Piracy is clearly illegal. Better enforcement than sending in the navies is impractical. If that doesn’t work, the penalties are ineffective.

  2. Pingback: Daily UK and Europe Highlights – 13 August 2009 |

  3. It was implemented. If you wish to look at history, you’ll see that problems with too many pirates were solved by attacking the base harbors. Piracy is a phenomenon, like terrorism. You can’t fight or defeat phenomena. You fight pirates, not piracy.

  4. I would like any background info anyone can give me on the Arctic Sea vessel. Where she was originally registered, what she was used for and anything else that is pertinent.

  5. michael4096: as far as I’m aware piracy is illegal in every country in the world, so if a pirate’s caught on the high seas he can be tried by the country that catches him, and if he’s caught in territorial waters he can be tried by the local courts.

    I should note that the MV Arctic Sea has now, apparently, been found again by the Russian navy I would feel better if a more reputable navy and legal system had got involved.

  6. ajay: I am no expert in this either however I’m sure that what you say is not so.

    1. Any country can prosecute pirates; not because it is illegal in every country but because it is the subject of many international conventions stating that. It is considered a crime against human society. Not a crime against humanity though, that would make it an ICJ subject.

    2. However, not all conventions are agreed and ratified by all states.

    3. And, there is no real definition of what piracy is. Not what you need for legal proceedings – “I know it when I see it” is not really good enough for a court. Some definitions of piracy include controversial bits like destruction of property (be careful throwing a deck chair over the side of a ferry – you could hang), sailing a ship with no flag and no allegiance to any state and, finally, intention of piracy is the same as doing it.

    4. Some states have used these ‘laws’ to attack shipping of other states – usually, as part of commercial disagreements.

    So when the comments about hanging the pirates or shelling their home ports arise, my question is always: “Who decides?” (Yes, I do understand Oliver probably had his tongue firmly in cheek.)

    And, generally, I agree with you. The Arctic Sea probably has little to do with piracy.

  7. No. This problem will only be solved by applying penalties considered a sufficient deterrent by the pirates, not by European politicians. Thinking that all the world is running by one’s own rules is a form of European hubris.

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