As someone who regularly moisturises, avoids direct sunlight, and works at home with the blinds drawn seven days a week, I cannot pretend to understand the desire of our ancestors to so enthusiastically take to the open seas in a rickety boat, seeking fame, fortune, and unexplored lands.
What I do completely understand is the desire of old people to go on massive cruise ships travelling between countries, with heated pools, legal gambling, and all-you-can-eat buffets. That to me seems like a much nicer way to travel on water.
Even someone as land based as myself, though, still hears the sea calling to me, tempting me to head out into open waters where, so I am led to believe, there are no laws, no restrictions, and no limits to what I can do. In international waters, so we are told, anything goes, from piracy, to murder, to a ship’s captain marrying me to a friendly dugong.
The truth is a little more complicated than we might have been led to believe. Yes, there is such a thing as ‘international waters’ and yes, it is pretty much lawless. However, as we will see in this section, there is much less ‘international water’ than you might expect. And, to put it plainly, international waters are as dangerous as fuck.
Let’s embark on an adventure through the laws of international waters, sailor.
One of the most significant developments in the way the law applies to life on the ocean came with the introduction of an international United Nations Convention called the ‘Law of the Sea Treaty.’ The purpose of this Convention was to get every UN member nation to agree to leave some parts of the ocean as unclaimed by any one particular country, so these areas could be maintained for the benefit of all nations and all humankind. These parts of the ocean are now known as ‘the Area.’ How cool does that sound? The Area.
But is the Area lawless? The Convention is very vague on this (probably because the UN did not want to be seen to encourage lawlessness in parts of the ocean that were meant to be all about common good and sharing and caring between nations) but ultimately the answer is ‘yes.’ Mostly.
As I mentioned, there is not that much Area left any more, as nations around the world have managed to expand their borders way out into the oceans and seas, usually for nationalistic or economic reasons.
Back in the old days, the rules of ownership of the ocean by countries was pretty simple. It was generally accepted that a country owned all waters internal to it, like lakes and rivers, and also owned the ocean extending out from its land borders for a distance of three nautical miles. Why three nautical miles? Because that distance was, at the time, the furthest range of a cannon, and the idea was that the country should only be able to claim ownership over that part of the ocean it could defend from its shores. With cannons. Boom.
As time moved on and countries began to gain a greater appreciation of all the good stuff that was in the ocean, and under it, like fish and oil and sunken treasure ships, the three nautical mile rule was replaced with complex system of ocean zones, which allowed countries to expand their borders further and further into the ocean, and exercise varying degrees of legal ownership and legal rights in those different zones.
Each country has its own views on how far its borders go out into the ocean, and hence how far its laws reach out into it. As a guide, you can assume that you are subject to the laws of a country if you are within two hundred nautical miles of its coastline. Find some water that is not two hundred nautical miles off any coastline of any country, and you have found yourself some Area.
However, that then brings us to the second issue in trying to live a lawless life in the Area. Unless you really like getting wet or being eaten by sharks or angry dolphins, you will need to be on a boat while in the Area. And under the Convention, every boat, from the smallest dinghy to the largest cruise ship, is meant to ‘fly the flag’ of one nation while in international waters, and everything that happens on that boat is then subject to the laws of that nation. What I am trying to say is that the Area might be lawless but a boat in the Area is not. Told you this was complicated.
There is one loophole to the Convention, though. If you can find a boat that does not ‘fly the flag’ of any nation and renounce your citizenship of your home country so that you are not a citizen of any country, you will not be subject to the Convention. This means you could, I suppose, live a lawless life in the Area. However, you are setting yourself up for a bad, bad time.
Your boat could be boarded by pirates or Convention-ignoring government or military ships from any country. Any of these party poopers could sink your boat and take all your property. Or, you know, torture you viscously and slowly. Assuming you are still alive after all of this, you will have no one to complain to, and no court will hear your case. That’s the price you pay for renouncing your citizenship and using a boat of no nation – the law does not apply to you in the Area, but no laws protect you, either.
Ultimately, the magic and mystery of the open ocean is all but gone, thank God. Yes, in some sense, international waters are still technically lawless and, yes, you could potentially do whatever you like in these waters without fear of legal action. However, the reality is that if what you are doing is seriously evil someone is going to do something about it, and it will not end well for you. Why don’t you join me on a trip on an old folks’ cruise ship instead? We can play Bingo, gorge ourselves on chocolate mousse at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and leave complex issues of international waters to another time.