International waters laws can be extremely confusing and complex, especially for someone who doesn’t practice law to begin with. There are so many layers, deciphering what’s legal and what’s not for a location isn’t always easy. If you go on cruises or travel in international waters frequently, it’s critical that you have a good understanding of at least the basics. This understanding can help to protect you in the event that something happens while you’re on a cruise or traveling across international waters.
Before we cover the basics of international waters laws, we’re going to go over what international waters are. This should help you understand the rest of the post. Our goal is to give you a good understanding of the laws and regulations so you feel comfortable when you go out into international waters.
Defining International Waters
In short, international waters are areas of the sea or ocean that are too far out to fall under any nation’s jurisdiction. Since they’re beyond the nation’s reach, no one “owns” them. You may have heard them referred to as the high seas or the open seas. Generally, international waters start around 200 nautical miles from the country’s shoreline and continue outward. To complicate it more, international waters are usually broken into sections, and different countries have various rights concerning these sections.
Defining International Waters Laws
Now that you know what international waters are, we’ll move to how the laws work at sea. An international waters law is an agreement between two or more nations. This agreement outlines and regulates any and all activity that happens on the referenced section of the water. Usually, international waters laws go into effect after the nations agree to sign a treaty.
These treaties are written out, signed, and governed by international law. However, these laws can change when you’re aboard a cruise ship or another vessel.
It’s important to note that most cruise ships or vessels handle any legal situations on a case-by-case basis because each country has their own version of maritime law. However, all of the legal proceedings start by determining which flag the cruise ship sails under.
When a ship registers with a country, this is the flag it flies under. Then, the ship will follow the country’s version of maritime law. The ship also has to take into consideration any territory that a legal issue took place in. This complexity is why it’s important to get solid legal counsel as soon as you notice you have a problem.
The United Nations also has a fair amount of power concerning international waters. Their power is outlined in the United Nations Convention under the Law of the Sea. As of 2017, over 160 countries signed and agreed to abide by this agreement. As we mentioned, any activity on the ship is subject to the country that the ship’s flag flies under.
However, you also have to take into consideration the “Universal Jurisdiction” laws. This set of regulations allows any country to pursue criminal charges outside of its designated territory or territorial waters under certain circumstances. These include:
- The crime occurred in one country but it affects another country
- The guilty party is a legal citizen of the prosecuting nation
- The victim of the crime is a legal citizen of the prosecuting nation
- The crime immediately threatens the interest of the prosecuting nation
- War crimes, acts of terrorism, or genocide
International Waters Laws: The Basics
While there can be a lot of gray areas and disputes when it comes to laws on the high seas, there are a few basic things that are relatively easy to understand concerning international waters laws. Here’s a look at the basics, starting from a country’s coastline.
Internal waters refer to things like ports or bays. Cruise ships are a good example for laws concerning internal waters because they tend to dock at different ports or bays as they go along their cruise route. These bays and ports are part of the country you’re visiting. So, if you were visiting Panama and the cruise ship docks at the Colon 2000 Cruise Terminal, you’re officially in internal waters.
This means that all of the laws and regulations in Panama and the local laws of Colon, Panama apply to the cruise ship, the passengers, and the ship’s crew. If you get into trouble here, you’re subjected to any local fines or penalties, even if what you’re doing is legal in your home country.
The first thing you want to understand is that anything 12 nautical miles out from the country’s coastline are territorial waters. The sovereign country has full rights and say over anything and everything below or at the water’s surface. These 12 nautical miles also contain the start of the country’s exclusive economize zone (EEZ). The EEZ can extend up out to 200 nautical miles off the country’s coastline. The EEZ gives the sovereign country all rights to any and all resources found below the water’s surface. If this exclusive economize zone overlaps with other countries, it’s usually divided equally.
This can mean things like fishing or oil deposits. Vessels are allowed to pass through these areas. However, they’re not allowed to take anything or extract any natural resources. Also, if something is illegal in a country but legal on international waters, you can’t partake in it until you clear the country’s 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. An example of this would be gambling in the United States. Gambling is illegal in many parts of the United States so any cruise ship that allows gambling has to wait until the cruise ship clears territorial waters to open the onboard casino.
Beyond these 12 nautical miles from the coastline, you start to get into the contiguous zone. The contiguous zone starts at nautical mile 12 and goes out to nautical mile 24. In this zone, the sovereign county has certain rights. It’s not usual for the country to have their law enforcement personnel or military personnel patrolling this zone constantly.
For example, if you’re in a fishing boat minding your own business and you’re in the 12-mile contiguous zone, the United States Coast Guard is allowed to board your vessel if they suspect you’re actively partaking in illegal activities like drug smuggling. It doesn’t matter which flag the ship is flying under, the United States is allowed certain rights and privileges in this area. The same goes for any country or nation when you end up in their specific contiguous zone.
Once you pass 24 nautical miles from a country’s coastline, you start to get into international waters or the high sea. This is the area where maritime law tends to blur and get confusing. However, we mentioned that people aboard a vessel are now under the law of the country that the vessel is flying under. This can lead to confusion and difficulty if you’re an American citizen but you’re under Norwegian law because you’re on a Norwegian cruise that’s flying under a Norwegian flag.
Again, this is why it’s so important to bring an issue to the attention of the staff as soon as it happens. This way, they can note where it happened and which country’s laws will rule in your particular case.
The Fine Print for Cruises
Cruises are slightly more complicated, and there is a lot of fine print to get through when you purchase your tickets. If a U.S. citizen gets robbed off the coast of Los Angeles while still in U.S. territorial waters, could they then sue the cruise line itself in a Los Angeles court? You’d think that the simple answer would be yes based on what you’ve learned already. It all depends, however, on the fine print. If the cruise line has fine print that states that Houston can sue them, the Los Angeles court will almost always toss the case out.
The Cruise Ship Competitiveness Act of 1991
If you were on a cruise ship that flew the United State’s flag from 1950 until as late as 1990, there was no gambling at all. This is because gambling was, and still is in most areas, illegal in the United States. To get around this, the Cruise Ship Competitiveness Act came about. This act made it completely legal for a ship to open gambling opportunities to passengers once they reach the high seas or international waters 24 nautical miles off the coast of the United States.
This did open the door for other countries to extend similar services to their passengers. For example, a cruise ship flying the flag for Amsterdam could potentially make it legal for passengers to smoke marijuana on board because it’s legal to do so in Amsterdam. This cruise ship does run a risk of illegal smuggling between countries if passengers get caught though. While this hasn’t happened yet, it is a possibility, and it would be technically legal under the more lenient laws of the oceans.
Citizenship and International Waters Laws
Most cruise ships don’t allow pregnant women to come on board if they’re in their third trimester or later, and for good reason. Along with the increased risk of something happening, if the women went into labor and the shortage of OB equipment on board, the question of citizenship comes into play. Like all other international waters laws, there isn’t a black and white answer.
One of the standard rules cruise ships and airplanes follow is that the baby’s citizenship follows the parent’s citizenship. So, if the mother is a U.S. citizen, the baby will also have U.S. citizenship. There is a catch though. If a U.S. citizen gave birth on a Norwegian-registered cruise ship in international waters, in Norwegian territorial waters, or in Norwegian internal waters, you could make a case for Norwegian citizenship. However, this case would most likely have to go through court proceedings to make a legitimate claim.
Work Visas and International Waters Laws
Another interesting area of international waters laws is work visas and immigration laws (H1-B). Changes to the immigration laws now make it a more drawn-out and tedious process for non-U.S. citizens to obtain legitimate work visas.
But, international waters law has technicalities that some companies are starting to notice and use to help get skilled workers working just off the coast of the United States legally without a work visa. If a person is housed on a cruise ship that is registered in an area where there is no HB-1 law, they can technically work for a U.S. company without a visa. They can skip the visa process and start working straight away. Territorial waters law makes exceptions for labor laws as well.
For example, the Bahamas doesn’t have the HB-1 laws for work visas. You could legally work on a ship registered in the Bahamas without a work visa just a few miles off the coast of the United States without any consequences.
What Does All of This Mean for the Frequent International Waters Traveler?
You should now have a good understanding of the basics of international waters laws, no matter where you travel. It means that you want to pay special attention to any local laws or regulations when you get within 12 nautical miles of any other country or nation, and you want to make sure that you don’t break any laws while you’re at the port or when you get off the ship to shop or visit and experience the local culture.
Additionally, you want to be aware of which country your particular cruise ship’s flag flies under because these will most likely be the laws that govern your case should something happen.
Contact Naylor Law Today!
No matter if you’re a first-time traveler, a traveling veteran, or a person who has a case that happened on international waters, contact us. We bring over 40 years of maritime law experience to each case we take on, and we offer a free consultation when you contact our offices.