Are there laws on the high seas?

All governments administer their lands by laws. This is easy to understand with respect to solid ground: when you look at a map, borders usually mark where the power of one state ends and that of another begins. But what about maritime countries that have maritime borders or are completely surrounded by sea? Do their laws stop at the beach? So does that mean that the seas beyond are outlaws?

The high seas are not outlawed. Well, not quite. According to international law, a maritime state extends outward at some distance from its coastline. During the twentieth century, several attempts were made to develop an international “law of the sea” under the auspices of the United Nations. The outcome of the third and most recent United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 1982) has been largely successful, with more than 160 countries having signed the convention by 2017. Many countries, however, including the States The United States and other countries that have large coastlines facing the ocean and the sea (such as Colombia, Venezuela and Turkey) have not yet signed the agreement.

In general, the Law of the Sea states that maritime nations primarily control their territorial waters from shore to a distance of 12 miles (19.3 km), which is the “12-mile limit”. Within this region, all the laws of that country apply: the country can build, extract natural resources, and encourage or forbid sea passage through (or overflight) just as if it were a piece of land. Maritime nations are also entitled to an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) consisting of the water column and sea floor over a distance of 200 miles (about 322 km). (Some EEZ sizes may be limited by the existence of other countries’ EEZs, in which case the overlapping area is often divided equally between the various parties.) The maritime state that owns the exclusive economic zone also owns marine life and mineral resources. existing in it, but it cannot prevent ships, planes and other vessels coming from foreign countries from passing through and over it.

However, there are still plenty of oceans beyond the 12-mile limit and exclusive economic zones in the world. How are legal issues dealt with in the vast expanses of the ocean? In these areas, ships and aircraft from any country have free passage, overflight, hunting and extraction of mineral resources. With regard to crimes committed in these areas, the laws of the country that owns the ship or hull on which the crime was committed apply. This may seem fairly obvious, but ships at sea are often on the move, creating a legal headache for investigators and government officials. For example, what country laws apply when a person from country X commits murder on board a cruise ship owned by country Y in international waters, but between the time of the crime and its discovery, the ship enters the territorial waters of country Z?

With regard to international crimes – such as piracy, human trafficking and crimes against humanity – any state or international organization could theoretically claim authority over this matter using the concept of universal jurisdiction. This concept can be used to justify the right of one party or the other to thwart criminal activity as soon as it occurs, to bring charges against the aggressors, and to prosecute the aggressors in their national (or international) courts. Since individual country laws and international courts are not recognized by all countries, there is often no fully accepted ruling. Government officials in one country may choose not to recognize the legal authority of another.

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