What Are International Waters?

Despite what many think, the whole Earth is navigable, but it’s not owned. The term “international waters” is a catch-all for the vast amount of oceans and bodies of water which no country can rightly claim. With a few exceptions, a nation’s border stops 12 miles from the coastline.

These areas have a history of being lawless. While the agreement is in place to give every nation the right to research, travel through and lay pipes and cables through them, many take advantage. With no rules or laws to enforce, many engage in illegal fishing and piracy without much risk of facing consequences.

Since no nation owns it, no nation feels obligated to patrol these waters and keep them safe. However, universal jurisdiction dictates how a case is handled should a crime be reported or a criminal seek a safe haven there.

The broad law set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a nation can enforce their laws onto any ship flying their flag. So a boat registered to Italy is considered an extension of its territory, therefore abiding by its laws.

Additionally, the U.S. reserves the right to exercise jurisdiction in special circumstances such as…

  • If an island, rock or key contains deposits of guano and is approved by the President.
  • If the offender is a U.S. citizen.
  • If a ship, at any point during its voyage, departs from a U.S. port.

International law will also recognize the right to assert jurisdiction in cases such as…

  • The offense occurs in one country but impacts another.
  • The offender is a citizen of the prosecuting state.
  • The offense threatens the interests of the prosecuting nation.
  • Victim is a citizen of the prosecuting nation.
  • The offense is universally condemned by all members of the community (piracy, terrorism, etc.)