International laws spell out duty to rescue persons at sea
MANILA, Philippines – Reports of the June 9 incident where a Chinese fishing vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat anchored near Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) sparked debates about accountability.
Various international laws spell out the duty of states to rescue distressed and stranded persons at sea.
In a 2016 paper by Irini Papanicolopulu, associate professor of international law at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy, she wrote that this duty "is a fundamental rule of international law."
Written for the journal International Review of the Red Cross, Papanicolopulu said in her paper that this rule "has been incorporated in international treaties, and forms the content of a norm of customary international law."
She added that it applies "both during peacetime and during wartime, albeit with the necessary adjustments to take into account the different circumstances."
Some of these international laws were also mentioned by maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal in a Facebook post on Monday, June 17, in reaction to the incident in the West Philippine Sea.
Papanicolopulu also argued that the duty to rescue distressed people at sea "can be considered as another side of the right to life, which every individual enjoys under human rights law."
In highlighting the importance of assisting distressed persons in such situations, she cited events like the influx of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and accidents like the 2012 sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia off Italy as examples of dangers that can happen at sea.
Foremost of these international laws is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both the Philippines and China are signatories
Article 98(1) of UNCLOS provides that every state "shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew, or the passengers" to do any of the following:
- Render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost.
- Proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him.
- After a collision, to render assistance to the other ship, its crew and its passengers and, where possible, to inform the other ship of the name of his own ship, its port of registry and the nearest port at which it will call.
Meanwhile, Article 98(2) lays out the duty of coastal states "to establish and maintain search and rescue services," explained Papanicolopulu.
Item 1 of Regulation 33 (Distress situations – obligations and procedures) in Chapter V states that:
The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so. This obligation to provide assistance applies regardless of the nationality or status of such persons or the circumstances in which they are found. If the ship receiving the distress alert is unable or, in the special circumstances of the case, considers it unreasonable or unnecessary to proceed to their assistance, the master must enter in the log-book the reason for failing to proceed to the assistance of the persons in distress, taking into account the recommendation of the Organization, to inform the appropriate search and rescue service accordingly.
Guidelines for states on search and rescue services are outlined in Regulation 7.
Papanicolopulu said the SOLAS Convention "explicitly applies to vessels in all maritime zones."
The Philippines acceded to the treaty, or accepted the offer or opportunity to become a party to it, in December 1981, and it took effect in March 1982. China ratified the treaty in 1980, then made a notification to the Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organization in 1997.
As stated in the introductory paragraphs of the treaty, this convention, in general, sets up an "international maritime search and rescue plan responsive to the needs of maritime traffic for the rescue of persons in distress at sea."
The first paragraph of Article 10 in Chapter II of this treaty on salvage operations states: "Every master is bound, so far as he can do so without serious danger to his vessel and persons thereon, to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea."
The Philippines is not part of this convention. China acceded to it in 1994, and it took effect in 1996. China then made a notification to the IMO in 1997. – Rappler.com
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