28 May 2013
Search and Rescue Operations at Sea: Who is in Charge? Who is Responsible? – Commentary
Symposium on the Law of the Sea and the Law of Responsibility, cross-posted on Opinio Juris
Seline Trevisanut provides a very helpful analysis of some of the significant gaps in the system (if we can call it that) of responsibility in international law for the welfare of those who find themselves in distress at sea. Regrettably, there has been an increase in tragic maritime incidents involving asylum seekers in recent years, not only in the Mediterranean, but also in other oceans seas including the Indian Ocean where several vessels carrying asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia have foundered, and there has been significant loss of life. The death toll from the 20 vessels that have sunk en route to Australia since 2009 now stands at nearly 900. There is an urgent need to clarify the international legal duties upon states to ensure that such tragedies are avoided, and that when sinkings do occur that search and rescue authorities respond promptly and effectively.
As Seline explains, there remains uncertainty, in some situations, as to the chain of responsibility for safeguarding the right to life that persons in distress enjoy. From a human rights perspective, that right can only be enforceable if the relevant individuals are within the jurisdiction of a state, but the jurisdictional status may be uncertain, depending upon where the maritime emergency occurs. Seline makes a compelling argument for treating persons within a Search and Rescue Region (SRR) as within the jurisdiction of the relevant SAR state for the purposes of international human rights law. However, that is often not the end of the enquiry; as not all states are able to discharge their SAR obligations to the same level of diligence, and may not have a system of human rights accountability so that victims and their families can pursue redress.
To illustrate this point by reference to the Australian situation, many asylum seeker vessels become distressed within the Indonesian SRR, and under the SAR Convention it remains Indonesia’s primary responsibility to render assistance. However the situation is somewhat unique in that most of the vessels are usually detected by Australian authorities which then pass the information on to their Indonesian counterparts, who they know have highly constrained capacity to mount a response far from shore, particularly in challenging sea conditions. What this indicates, is that there is a need to clarify (and possibly extend) the search and rescue obligations of parties to the SAR Convention to address such situations where there is a significant mismatch between states in their SAR capacities. Those in peril at sea should not be allowed to be in a ‘legal limbo’, falling between the cracks in the law.