Ecopiracy in the Contiguous Zone

It’s been a relatively exciting week for international law of the sea. Not only has Iran been demonstrating the importance of territorial seas, why straight baseline measurements matter and when they are appropriate, and the differences between transit and innocent passage, but now three Australians are helping to illustrate the concept of contiguous zones, thanks to their unauthorized boarding of a Japanese whaling support ship:

The so-called “Sea Shepherd” activists — Geoffrey Tuxworth, Simon Peterffy and Glen Pendlebury — boarded the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru II early Sunday morning off the southwest coast of western Australia.

….

The three men are members of an Australian environmental organization called Forest Rescue Australia and their mission was designed to prevent the Japanese whaler from tailing an anti-whaling flagship belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Because this all took place about 16 miles off of the Australian coast, the men boarded the ship and were apprehended by the Japanese vessel within Australia’s contiguous zone. There now seems to be a dispute between the Sea Shepherd organization and the Australian government over the significance of this fact — with the Sea Shepherds believing, while the Australian government is stuck in the position of awkwardly noting that the three men who boarded the vessel are subject only to Japanese laws.

Although the Australian government did eventually work through diplomatic channels to arrange for the release of the three activists, its position was that Australia had no particular claims to jurisdiction over the incident, beyond the fact it involved Australian citizens:

[Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon] said consular officials were attempting to contact the men, and the Government’s priority was to ensure their safety and well-being, and return to Australia.
“It is a difficult situation. This incident happened outside our territorial waters, in our exclusive economic zone,” she said.
“But that doesn’t give us rights for Australian law to automatically apply.
“In fact, our advice is that Japanese law will apply because a Japanese boat is the one that’s been boarded.”

The Sea Shepherds do not agree with the Gillard Government’s view:

Capt [Paul] Watson said he had not expected the men to be taken to Japan and charged.

“Considering it was within the 24 miles contiguous zone, which is where the Australian immigration and Customs has absolute authority, we didn’t think the Australian government would allow the Japanese to take Australian citizens out of that area.”

He accused Attorney-General Nicola Roxon of “not doing her homework”, adding the vessel was only 16 miles off the beach.

“This is not some ordinary boat that was boarded, this is a criminal boat supporting a criminal operation.”

Unfortunately for the Sea Shepherds, however, their interpretation of international law is a bit misguided. The contiguous zone’s actual significance is pretty negligible in most contexts, and completely negligible here. The contiguous zone is the band of ocean territory just beyond a nation’s territorial waters, and overlapping with its EEZ. States are permitted to extend this zone up to 24 miles from their coast; this means, in the typical circumstance, a nation’s contiguous zone is a 12 mile band that begins 12 miles out at sea, where the state’s territorial sea ends.

Under Article 33 of UNCLOS,

1. In a zone contiguous to its territorial sea, described as the contiguous zone, the coastal State may exercise the control necessary to:

(a) prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea;

(b) punish infringement of the above laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea.

2. The contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

And that is pretty much the extent of the contiguous zone’s importance, when it comes to a coastal state’s jurisdiction over foreign ships. Moreover, as the Shonan Maru II is not itself a whaling ship or a research ship — it’s basically a bodyguard for the whaling ships, engaged in counter-harassment measures against the Sea Shepherds — it was not even taking any actions which could have subjected it to Australian regulations at the time the Forest Rescue men boarded it. As for Australian criminal laws (even presuming that the Japanese could possibly have committed any violations), such laws are only enforceable in the contiguous zone to the extent that the enforcement was related to violations that occurred or were about to occur within Australia’s territorial sea. Here, all of the events concerned took place outside of territorial waters, and so Australia’s extended enforcement jurisdiction is inapplicable.

As such, if any criminal acts occurred with regard to the boarding of the Shonan Maru, the crimes were probably committed by the Forest Rescue activists rather than the Japanese whalers. In fact, an argument can even be made that, by forcibly boarding a Japanese vessel outside of Australian territorial waters with the intent of detaining it, or at least of diverting its course, the activists were engaging in an act of piracy, pursuant to UNCLOS Article 101. Although the Japanese whalers are hardly innocent when it comes to breaches of international law, in this case, it is the Sea Shepherds that are in the wrong.

-Susan

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