How Maritime Law Works?

All of us live in countries, where there are laws and rules and governing bodies telling us what we can and can’t do. But, 70% of the world is ocean, where there are no countries—no governing bodies to tell us what’s right and wrong. That’s why maritime law exists. Let’s start with a hypothetical: a baby is born on a cruise ship sailing in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. What nationality does it take? This is the coast of some fictional place in some fictional country governed by some fictional government. From this line, which is the water line at the lowest low tide, every country is allowed 12 miles of territorial waters.

It used to be 3 miles—the distance a cannon could shoot off shore—but that has since changed. Those twelve miles are the property of a country. They can do pretty much whatever they please in it and all domestic laws apply. Foreign ships are, however, sometimes allowed to enter into these waters under the principle of innocent passage. If ships have an innocent purpose—which does not include fishing, polluting, weapons practice, or spying—they are allowed to pass through territorial waters of a foreign nation without permission as long as they do so quickly and without stopping on shore. Beyond the territorial waters there is another 12 miles of the contiguous zone.

This zone allows a country to enforce laws as long as they fall into one of four categories. If the laws have to do with customs, taxation, immigration, or pollution, they can be enforced in the contiguous zone. Beyond the contiguous waters is the Exclusive Economic Zone, also known as the EEZ. This zone extends 200 nautical miles from shore. Beyond the territorial waters the EEZ is in international waters, however, only the country who holds the exclusive economic zone has the right to harvest natural resourcesin this area.

This law was originally set up to help with disputes over fishing rights but has since been incredibly useful with the boom in oil drilling. All these laws do, however, occasionally cause some disputes due to overlapping zones. This is the South China Sea—an incredibly important waterway. Nearly 1/3rd of the world’s shipping traffic passes through it and it reportedly has huge untapped oil reserves. China has this land so it says it has all this water, Malaysia has this land so it says it has all this water, Vietnam has this land so it says it has all this water, Brunei has this land so it says it has all this water, the Philippines has this land so it says it has all this water, and Taiwan has this land so it says it has all this water. When two countries are less than 400 nautical miles away from each other, it is up to them to decide where their respectiv economic zones end. Most solve it civilly by separating the zones at the equidistant point from each of their shores, however, when the stakes are so high, such as in the South China Sea, countries can be a bit less cordial.

So, our cruise ship baby. Let’s change the hypothetical and say that the cruise ship was sailing in US territorial waters—less than 12 miles away from shore. Every oceangoing vessel is required to be registered in some country. You’ll notice that most large cruise ships are registered in tiny far-away countries. Panama, a nation with fewer people that Minneapolis, holds the registration of one quarter of the world’s ships because taxes and labor costs are low. When a ship is in international waters, the laws of the country of registration apply. A ship registered in Amsterdam could legally have prostitution and marijuana on board, as long as they got rid of the drugs and shut down the brothels before sailing into territorial waters.

Once a ship is in the territorial waters of a country, the onboard laws switch to that of the country the ship is physicall in. This is the same for nationality law, kinda. A baby born on a Dutch ship within 12 miles of the US is a baby born in America. Since the US is one of the 30 countries that unconditionally grants citizenship to any baby born within the country, a baby born in US territorial waters is lucky enough to receive the world’s 8th most powerful passport. There are two exceptions to this rule. Foreign Diplomats visiting or living in the US with a diplomatic passport are not subject to the laws of the US or any other nation other than their own.

Consequently, the babies of foreign diplomats do not automatically receive American citizenship. Additionally, the babies of individuals staging a hostile invasion or occupation of American territory are not granted American citizenship upon birth. Here’s where things get even more confusing. Even though a ship in international waters is an extension of the territory of the nation it’s registered in law wise, the rules for nationality are different. The United Nations Treaty on the Reduction of Statelessness, which is followed by… some… countries, says that a baby born in international waters should just take the nationality of their parents. Most of the world’s countries use the principle of bloodline to determine if a baby should get citizenship rather than whether or not a baby was born in the country. However, there are some countries that won’t give citizenship to a baby born outside the country.

In that case, the baby would take the citizenship of the country in which the ship was registered. Alright, that’s enough with babies. There’s a long history of exploiting maritime laws. During prohibition, US ships started to change their registration to Panama and other foreign countries so they could serve alcohol in international waters. In the mid-century, casino boats left from many cities where gambling was illegal to partake in legal gambling in international waters. In 2005, entrepreneur Roger Green started SeaCode, a company that planned to evade US labor laws by placing an old cruise ship 12 miles off the shore of California.

They would bring in foreign coders and house them in this ship where they would not have to abide by US wage laws or go through the difficult visa application process. The idea never came to fruition but the technical legality of it just shows how convoluted maritime law is. The laws for airplanes are pretty muc the same. Technically, once an airplane has taken off, the laws of the country of registration apply. The only law that is applies and differs among countries is the drinking age. A British Airways flight from New York to London can serve alcohol to 18 year olds, however, I most cases, airlines choose to follow the laws of the origin country.


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