The law of the sea dates back to the 17th century. It is derived from the concept of the ‘freedom of the seas’, when international waters were seen as ‘free to all nations, but belonging to none of them’. It still contains principles such as the ‘presumption of innocent passage’ through international waters and includes conventions like SOLAS, which puts the safety of the lives of those at sea above and beyond all other values and objectives.
None of this sits too easily with the EU’s ‘war on migration’ and its desire to police the Mediterranean and North Atlantic. In 2003 Statewatch reported how the EU intended to interpret the law of the sea creatively to:
* “punish” states that used the open seas for “non-peaceful” purposes,
* to conduct coastal patrols in African territories,
* to intercept boats on international waters,
* to undermine the right to asylum,
* to plug “legal loopholes” like human rights provision.
Last month FRONTEX, the EU borders agency, which has effectively put the 2003 plan into practice, hosted a seminar on the “challenges” posed by the law of sea. How far we’ve come in such a short space of time.