Maritime Security: State Jurisdiction Over PCASP

Published Dec 9, 2014 9:13 AM by The Maritime Executive

By Simon O. Williams, LLM

Various types of state jurisdiction can be enforced under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and international law broadly.

UNCLOS itself is often regarded as a framework convention: It sets up institutions and balances the rights and interests of states with the interests of the international community. UNCLOS provides specific regimes, which are fundamental to maritime security, namely the regime of consecutive maritime zones and the jurisdictional trinity of flag, coastal and port state control. In fact, UNCLOS is the only international convention which stipulates a framework for state jurisdiction in maritime spaces.

Conflicting Regimes

Three main types of jurisdictional activity exist, combined with three categories of maritime states that can have jurisdiction:

Prescriptive Jurisdiction or the power to make rules.

Enforcement Jurisdiction or the power to apply rules, monitor compliance, conduct inspections and make arrests.

Adjudicative Jurisdiction or the power to undertake court proceedings after enforcement.

These three types of jurisdiction apply to states and can fall into both territorial and extra-territorial jurisdiction. Territorial refers to the domain over which a state maintains power (generally its physical borders). To act outside those limits and exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction, an actor needs justification, which is based on the following principles:

Active Personality/Nationality (i.e., Flag State jurisdiction or wherever one is subject to laws)

Universality (i.e., universal jurisdiction over piracy to protect the common good from danger)

Treaty, where applicable.

When the aforementioned principles overlap, concurrent jurisdiction exists. For example, vessels have nationality in one state, fishing agreements in another state, crew from five states, and are subject to international treaties, etc.

In the private maritime security context, six or more states may have jurisdiction at any given time: the Flag State of the merchant ship, the state where the shipping company is registered, the home state or states of the merchant crew, the state where the private security company is registered, the home states of the individual security guards, and the coastal states whose waters the vessel transits or ports it enters. Thus oversight of private maritime security operations becomes confusing as state jurisdiction is unclear or blurred, and occasionally the states involved may tiff to avoid responsibility and jurisdiction.

The UNCLOS maritime zone system channels three types of maritime states: Coastal States, Port States and Flag States.

Flag State Jurisdiction

Flag State refers to the country where a vessel is registered. This country has extra-territorial jurisdiction over its vessels sailing anywhere in the world by virtue of the nationality principle. Every state has the right to sail ships under its flag and thus participate in international navigation. However, this right comes with certain responsibilities. Flag states are responsible for enforcing international obligations everywhere and exclusively on the high seas over their vessels. This is derived from Article 94 of UNCLOS, which stipulates that “every state shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical, and social matters over ships flying its flag.”

Flag State Jurisdiction typically includes management of vessel registration; effective jurisdiction and control over vessels including inspection, detention and arrest as necessary, and ensuring vessel conformity to generally accepted international rules and standards (GAIRS).

GAIRS are the mandatory minimum standards, and Flag States can, at will, establish more stringent requirements aboard their vessels. In the case of maritime security, many states can and do establish stricter measures for vetting and employing Privately Contracted Armed Security Personnel (PCASP), as well as the carriage of weapons, than is mandated by the IMO or recommended by the international community.

Flag State maritime security regulations, however, generally only cover issues such as the types of weapon systems that can be brought onboard, how many guards can be embarked, certification requirements and background credentials for embarked PCASP and, in some circumstances, application procedures to gain Flag State approval for taking a security detail onboard. However, these Flag-State restrictions do not address other pertinent issues such as embark and disembark procedures for PCASP, which frequently take place in countries other than the Flag State, Rules for the Use of Force, oversight and reporting protocols, and code of conduct.

Moreover, for many Flag States a licensing system for PCASP or anti-piracy teams is non-existent. Effective control and enforcement of Flag State regulations upon PCASP is frequently impossible because operations often take place vast distances away from the Flag State and are shielded from the eyes of observers. As many vessels are registered in open registries or flag-of-convenience states, which maintain little tangible oversight over their vessels, verification – let alone inspection – is nearly impossible.

The flag-of-convenience and open registry systems exponentially complicate jurisdiction, accountability and oversight. Shipowners can simply change vessel registration from one open registry to another in order to place it under a jurisdiction with greater or lesser leniency, depending on their wishes. For example, a shipowner with a tanker flagged in Japan, a country with arguably the most stringent legislation on this matter, can simply reflag to a state that is not willing or able to exercise jurisdiction and control in order to ease regulations aboard his/her vessel. This is also done to dodge taxes, fees and regulations regarding crew treatment, as well as to avoid Flag State-imposed pollution control measures.

The Flag State is also the only state, in addition to the state where an individual is a national, which can institute proceedings against a person who is alleged to have conducted a violation at sea. This is according to Article 97 (1) of UNCLOS, which was created for general investigation and prosecution for duty misconduct aboard a vessel, such as causing a collision.

However, it can arguably be relevant in the case of PCASP activities to mitigate a potential pirate or terrorist attack, loss of life or any firearms discharge, perhaps even resulting in the wrongful death of a third party. On the other hand, it could exclude any deliberate use of force on high seas as “collision” implies accidental incident, and even further can be argued that a death by shooting off the vessel does not necessarily interfere with navigation.

Nonetheless, as Italian Prime Minister H.E. Mario Monti stated to the UN General Assembly, “International efforts to protect sea lanes and fight piracy can be effective only if all nations cooperate in good faith, according to the established rules of the international customary law and UN conventions, including those protecting the jurisdiction of the Flag State in international waters.”

Flag States are required to adopt laws to ensure international regulations are applied and enforced upon vessels which fly its flag. Flag States are to take appropriate measures to ensure that its vessels are prohibited from sailing unless they comply with GAIRS. Furthermore, they are tasked under customary international law and directly under UNCLOS with investigating and punishing violations aboard their vessels, irrespective of where the infraction took place.

Flag States may, however, delegate some authority to classification societies to inspect vessels and issue certificates to vessel/crew, or similarly to port or other states to inspect their vessels when geographically displaced.

Coastal State Jurisdiction

There is no prohibition of concurrent jurisdiction under UNCLOS, and vessels therefore can be subject to the jurisdiction of states besides the Flag State in certain circumstances, such as entering their maritime zones and ports.

The prescriptive power of Coastal States can be seen as a way to control the condition of ships navigating lawfully in their territorial seas. UNCLOS lays down rules for enforcement powers by Coastal States toward vessels in their maritime zones, specifically in their territorial sea, and specifies the measures a Coastal State can take to ensure peace and good order in its territorial sea.

Carriage of arms and PCASP in fire positions can arguably be threatening to peace and good order and may also run contrary to customs regimes regarding importation of arms should the PCASP have intent to embark or disembark with weapons in the Coastal State’s ports (sans licenses). Such a provision provides the Coastal State necessary latitude to take measures to investigate or prevent such an occurrence. UNCLOS is careful to prevent creeping Coastal State jurisdiction over violations that occurred prior to the ship’s entering its territorial sea.

In order for a Coastal State to exercise control beyond the territorial sea and into the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), it must contact the subject vessel’s Flag State to fulfill Flag State obligations, or develop and exercise Port State jurisdiction. Eventually, the ship will have to call at a port. National legislation criminalizing the transport of firearms, PCASP violations or agreements with other Port States upholding related legislation can then provide Port State jurisdiction to enforce compliance, as described below.

Port State Jurisdiction

Port State jurisdiction is not covered by UNCLOS directly, but UNCLOS provisions confirm this practice, indicative of residual jurisdiction in relation to Port State control. This is especially important in the private maritime security context.

If understanding Flag State jurisdiction on the high seas and Coastal State jurisdiction in the territorial sea are both challenging, then what happens when a ship-borne security team heads to port? A myriad of national rules and regulations then come into force regarding the disembarkation of personnel and equipment (especially weapons), creating even more mayhem in the legal machinery.

Although each Port State has its individual traits with regard to legislation governing the carriage or off-loading of weapons in its ports, there are a number of issues remaining common to all, most notably the prevention of undocumented immigration and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons (SALW) that could result from disembarkation of PCASP in their ports.

In an effort to enhance broader security issues, especially good governance, anti-trafficking, anti-corruption and counter-SALW proliferation, Port States take measures to prevent unwanted vessels, including those with armed security teams, from entering and disembarking at their ports. Port State control complements the obligation of Flag States to inspect and control vessels by undertaking investigations or verification of vessels calling at their port to ensure compliance with international obligations or standards. In the event of transgressions, violators can be forced to pay reparations to the Port State, which can arrest or even blacklist their vessels.

Generally, the Port State control arrangement is the standard mechanism for investigating and apprehending violators, irrespective of a vessel’s flag, as it will eventually need to make berth to unload cargo. Port State inspections are most frequently targeted for pollution matters. However, there have been numerous investigations and vessel arrests in recent years due to the proliferation of small arms for defensive purposes and armed maritime security teams onboard in violation of the Port State’s domestic legislation.

This is indicative of Port State crackdowns on maritime security operations in order to push for better standards and compliance or to keep unwanted PCASP activities in their maritime zones at bay. – MarEx


Simon O. Williams is Director of Tactique Ltd, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy on maritime security and environmental affairs. This is the third in a series of articles on maritime security operations and the Law of the Sea.

This document is a summary of maritime security developments. It is provided for general information purposes only, is not legal advice and does not constitute the offering of legal consultation services. It should not be used as a primary legal resource.

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