What is “the normal law of the sea”?
Tony Abbott told 2GB recently that “…the normal international law is that if you are rescued in a country’s search-and-rescue zone that country has an obligation to take you. You can go to the nearest port and the nearest port is normally the port that is in the country whose search-and-rescue zone you’ve been picked up in”.
I wouldn’t normally bother to credit any opinion expressed on 2GB, but is he right?
The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) provides excellent advice on the duties of states and ships when dealing with those in distress upon the sea. The primary documents are:
- The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS Convention),
- The 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS Convention),
- The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention),
- Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea, and
- The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
A shipmaster has an obligation to render assistance to those in distress at sea without regard to their nationality, status or the circumstances in which they are found.
Coastal states are obliged to maintain a search and rescue service and to cooperate with their maritime neighbours in doing so.
State parties are obliged to ensure that assistance is provided to any person in distress and that they are delivered to a place of safety.
The government responsible for the SAR region in which survivors were recovered is responsible for providing a place of safety or ensuring that such a place of safety is provided. Though both flag (the State whose flag the ship is flying) and coastal States should have effective arrangements in place for timely assistance to shipmasters in relieving them of persons recovered by ships at sea, that is not the same as “an obligation to take you”.
Nice try, Tony.