Sunday, September 29, 2013



File:USCG Eagle.jpg
Image result for image of an oarmace of admiralty
You can actually purchase your own Oar Mace @

 Depicted above are a judge's gavel, the port side view of the USCGC EAGLE, training ship of the U.S. Coast Guard one of the oldest dedicated maritime law enforcement agencies in the world, and an example of the "Oar Mace of Admiralty". The Oar Mace, symbol of admiralty law was once carried held aloft as the English Courts of Admiralty entered in solemn procession into the court room. The same oar mace sadly led the procession of the execution party for condemned pirates to the special gallows established for such displays off the beach just beyond the high tide mark. Of course admiralty was not the first contributor to the growing body of international law. The early Greek city states had codes between and among themselves that amounted to "international law" that dealt with things more mundane and land based than the subjects of admiralty law. But as early as the Roman empire we find maritime subjects being addressed in the context of more than one nation state.

 Once as a Coast Guard reservist I was assigned to deliver the annual training lecture on international law for our junior officers. I started the class by asking if anyone could define "international law". I was amazed by the responses coming from young college educated men which included some lawyers. Most simply didn't believe there was any such thing as international law. Korea wasn't that far behind us and Vietnam had just come to a regrettable conclusion. Everyone was focused on the the refusal of the various communists regimes to follow the Geneva Convention's Rules for the treatment of Prisoners of War. Yes everyone in the class had heard of "International Conventions" but their focus had been on the violation of the POW conventions. The group thinking was basically, what kind of a law is it that no one follows and breaks with total immunity? Personally I found that response from officers holding naval rank quite surprising despite the recent history of Communists abuses of the Geneva Conventions.

 I reminded the class as mariners that in our harbor, outside of the class room door that week end ships of every nation showed exactly the same red, green and white navigation lights, with the same screening for arc of visibility, and the same nominal ranges as every other. Why was that? Coincidence? Hardly, the world's maritime nations have long agreed on ship lighting, sound signals, right of way rules, and rules to avoid collision in international waters via strictly enforced international conventions (treaties designed to be signed by multiple nations). Even a few nations that never signed the conventions none the less carried identical "running lights" because once enough nations had signed the conventions most national and international tribunals would accept the convention provisions as the 'traditional rule of international law." I asked the class why it is that airplanes fly in and out of airports all around the world and communicate with the towers in English, how did one language become accepted as the international language of commercial aviation?  Once again via international convention. Why does your letter to friends in Europe , Africa, Asia , or Australia get right to their mailbox despite being mailed from the United States with postage purchased here; the international postal conventions.

 Murder and burglary are against the law in every jurisdiction in the world. None the less these laws are ignored and murders and burglaries are happening in virtually every jurisdiction in the world  all of the time. In some big American cities not one in five of such crimes ever results in a prosecution. Yet no one would argue that murder and burglary are not crimes having been decriminalized due to weak enforcement efforts. And so it is with the public law of nations. Some times it is clear that the violators are one jump ahead of enforcement efforts but the law still exists, it is sometimes formally codified as in the case of the international conventions, it exists as searchable precedent for many questions where there is no convention. Enforcement is most efficient in those cases such as the international rules to avoid ship collisions where the nations that signed the conventions then incorporate the rules into their own national legal systems. In other areas such as the Prisoner of War Conventions , and Rules of Armed Conflict Conventions the enforcement apparatus is not that clear cut or universally available.  But it exists, war criminals were executed by international tribunals at the end of World War II. There have been some successful prosecutions of war criminals by international and national tribunals ever since.

 We so often invoke "international law" in our opinion posts that we felt we should take some pains to inform our readers both naval and maritime professionals and general readers and water sportsmen alike of some of the basic and enduring principals of maritime international law. We thought we'd start with a series of posts. We will appreciate your comments as these proceed. If the majority are enjoying the posts and looking forward to them we will continue, if not we may move the discussion to one of our special interest pages, probably admiralty law after we've published a sufficient amount of material to constitute an effective introduction to the subject.

 If you would like to read up on the subject we recommend :


 This short paper back book is available at a very reasonable print on demand price from the original publisher MARINE EDUCATION TEXT BOOKS Ph: 985-879-3866, Fax 985-879-3911, website The MET price is probably under $35 dollars we checked Amazon and they had only one used text in stock and were asking over $300. We have found this often to be the case with all of the publications of the American Admiralty Bureau Guides and Commentators. They are out of copyright and thus thought to be out of print. Some university presses have republished them as hard bound volumes for rather expensive prices. However every volume ever published is still available as a spiral bound soft cover print on demand book from the original distributor MET, generally for under $40. Some of the Commentators are being updated by the original editor on line here in our AUTHORITATIVE LITERATURE section and may be read free on line.

 Next installment, we will explore the definition and subdivisions of international law. Please watch for, read and comment on this series as it evolves.

Johnas Presbyter, Editor



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