The planet we live on is grand and largely unknown. Although we are currently the most advanced generation of human beings to ever exist on this planet, there is still much to discover about the globe we live on. We often lose track of this fact due to the systems and cities we’ve created to form the secluded world we live in. 71% of the planet is covered in water and we’ve only explored a fraction of it. With only 5% of the high seas being explored, it would be difficult to manage and govern the 7 seas anywhere near as efficiently as we have the land. With so much oceanic activity such as transportation of goods, resource harvesting and recreational activity, we would have to beg to question, who exactly governs the high seas and how do we keep law and order in the vastly unknown?
The high seas seem almost entirely lawless. International waters do not have an effective enforcing authoritative body. This is because maritime countries (any nation which borders the sea) have legal jurisdiction up to 12 nautical miles off their coast, also known as their territorial waters. Anything beyond a maritime nation’s territorial waters is known as international waters and this is where legal matters become strangely grey. Cruise ships and unregistered vessels that sail illegally, effectively become ungoverned islands once they enter international waters. The United Nations and INTERPOL (an international organisation which facilitates worldwide policing) both govern and enforce international law on the high seas. However, as effective as these organisations are at reporting and regulating maritime crimes, there are still a multitude of crimes that are left without prosecution due to complications within the UN’s maritime jurisprudence. Crimes such as homicide, pollution, sexual assault and many more left without any justice. Problematic vessel registration processes and confounded crime reporting procedures are the root of the issue.
Cruise ships, shipping vessels and unregistered vessels have considerable contribution to the rate of yearly maritime crimes. However, the rate of prosecution isn’t nearly as high as the rate of crime. Unresolved murder and rape cases, slavery, human trafficking, pollution and resource exploitation are common crimes that perpetrators avoid prosecution for on international waters. Although, INTERPOL have released multiple statements on their website indicating that they are handling these worrying rates of crime with imperative action, the rate of unprosecuted maritime human trafficking, homicide and sexual assault cases are still a matter of utmost concern. This can be blamed on current maritime laws which allow major corporations and illegal vessel financiers to register their vessels in small underdeveloped nations. Furthermore, according to said laws, these vessels are subject to the laws of the nation that they are registered regardless of the origins of their possessor. This law is known as the Flags of Convenience Act (FCA). Vessel owners who take advantage of this act benefit from more lenient tax laws and in more concerning matters, avoid prosecution due to poor crime reporting on their behalf and overwhelmed criminal justice systems in these underdeveloped countries.
The act inherently creates a lawless bubble whereby the vessels would only be subject to the laws of the country they’re registered under, instead of the laws in which the possessor reside/operate in. Therefore, a crewmate and or passenger who commits a crime on said vessel would be legally prosecuted in the country in which the vessel is registered under. That’s if the crime is even initially reported by the victim, witnesses or the vessel’s authorities. However, it should be said that the FCA may be overruled by the Maritime Act of Universal Jurisdiction (which allows external authorities to intervene in the criminal justice procedure), on the condition that the criminal act is comparative to genocide and or other mass violations of human rights and or environmental laws. This loophole is the catalyst for mass corruption. This is where perpetrators of maritime law are given free-reign to exploit the criminal justice procedure.
Cruise lines such as Carnival Cruise Line International and Royal Caribbean, routinely pollute the seas, exploit their staff and neglect crime reports without any legal consequence. Piracy and Human Trafficking rates in the Caribbean and the Horn of Africa have left citizens of these regions vulnerable to vile acts of terrorism. The FCA complicates INTERPOL’s efforts to resolve these crimes by making the criminal prosecution of both pirates and their financiers a complex and untimely procedure. The rate of overfishing, naval oil drilling and naval waste disposal is at record high numbers and don’t seem to be slowing. This is affecting the state of natural seabed reserves, the price of seafood and the quality of sea life. The livelihoods of people and animals across the globe are deteriorating due to irresponsible law making and sea activity.
In accordance with the time that this article is released, it is unclear what the UN’s plan of action to correct its maritime laws is. The third and most recent UN convention on the Law of the Sea was held in 1982 and has been slow to enact its laws since then, with only 160 countries in agreement with said laws as of 2017. Although they've been considered largely successful, it fails to bring attention to the UN’s inability to challenge the rate of crime and corruption on the high seas. Therefore the threats to our livelihoods, such as climate change, global warming, resource exploitation, unsafe naval travel and mass human rights transgressions that remain unresolved.
In order to resolve the issues that lie in the UN’s Law of the Sea, the problems need to be raised to the attention of our local parliamentary representatives. As this pressing matter, if not appropriately resolved, may lead to irreversible consequences. As normal civilians, the most we can do in our day to day lives is prioritise recycling, reduce our carbon footprint and spread awareness about how our naval activity is ending lives and our dear planet.
The world is undergoing massive changes, not only due to the global pandemic but also in regard to global warming and climate change. Violations of basic human rights and the destruction of natural reserves have become the global standard on international waters. The UN, in the grand scheme of the matters at hand have not failed in any sense of the word. However, it is clear that their methods and the pace of their actions must be questioned.
Written by: Mogale Tsebane
Edited by: Jenna Jokhani