Laws of Maritime Warfare

Laws of Maritime Warfare:

The main objects of land warfare are to defeat the enemy army and to occupy the enemy territory. As opposed to this, the aims of maritime warfare are the defeat of the enemy navy, the annihilation of the enemy merchant navy, destruction of enemy coast, fortifications and of maritime as well as military establishments on the enemy coast, cutting off intercourse with the enemy coast, prevention of carriage of contraband and of rendering unneutral service to the enemy, all kinds of support to military operations on land, such as protection of landing of troops on the enemy coast, and lastly, defence of the home coast and protection to the home merchant fleet.

Leaving aside the customs, the laws of maritime warfare are mainly contained in the Declaration of Paris (1856), and the Sixth Hague Convention of 1907. The main provisions regarding naval warfare, as in vogue in International Law may be enumerated under the following sub-heads thus-

(1) Attack on Private and Public Vessels of the Enemy- The general rule is that public and private enemy ships may be attacked and seized in their own ports, as well as in the ports of invading nations and the ‘high seas’. This should, however, not be attacked or captured in neutral ports and waters. To this general principle of International Law, there are the following exceptions-

(a) Hospital Ships- According to the principles worked out by the Hague Conventions of 1899, and 1907, hospital ships are exempted from capture, and attack, such hospital ships were to be painted white and fly the Geneva flag.

This rule was flagrantly violated during the First World War when the Germans used submarines to sink hospital ships of the allied powers. During the Second World War Japan violated this principle. The Geneva Convention of 1949, made detailed provisions for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of the armed forces at sea provided that military hospital ships should not be attacked or captured under any circumstances.

The belligerents have a right to search hospital ships. According to Article 31 of the Geneva Declaration, the belligerents can refuse assistance from hospital ships, order them off, make them take a certain course, control the use of their wireless, and even detain them for a period not exceeding seven days if the circumstances so demand.

(b) Vessels Employed on Religious Mission- The Eleventh Hague Convention of 1907 exempts vessels, engaged in religious, scientific or philanthropic work from capture. But the immunity is withdrawn if the ships take part in hostilities directly or indirectly.

(c) Costal Ships- Ships employed for purposes of exchange of war prisoners are also immune from capture by belligerents.

(d) Fishing Smacks and Market Boats- Such ships as are protected by a licence for purpose of carrying on local trade or fishing, etc. are also exempted from capture. Lord Stowel refused to recognize such an immunity. Article 3 of the Hague Convention XI, provided that vessels exclusively employed in coastal fisheries and small boats employed in local trade were to be exempted from capture along with their appliances, rigging, tackle and cargo.

(e) Limited Immunity on Merchantmen- A somewhat restricted immunity is conferred by the Hague Convention of 1907, on the following classes of merchantmen-

  • Those who are found in enemy port at the time when the hostilities commenced.
  • Those who were unaware of the commencement of hostilities and entered the port under the impression that peace still prevailed.
  • Thos who are encouraged on the high seas under the impression that there was no outbreak of war and that the peace still prevailed.

(f) Mail Boats and Mail Bags- Although there is no recognized rule of International Law with regard to the immunity of mail boats and mail bags, yet states have frequently stipulated for such immunity, in the case of war by means of special treatises.

It is enacted in Article I of the Hague Convention that the postal correspondence of neutrals or belligerents, whether official or private in character, which may be found on board of a neutral or enemy ship at sea, is inviolable, and that, in case the ship is detained, the correspondence is to be forwarded by the captor with the least possible delay. There is only one exception to the rule, correspondence destined to, or proceeding from, a blockaded port does not enjoy immunity.

(2) Bombardment of Coastal Towns- Article 1, of the Hague Convention provides that the bombardment of undefended ports, towns, villages, dwellings or other buildings by naval force is under all circumstances and conditions forbidden. Article 2, provides that even in the case of undefended places, military or naval establishment depots of arms of war material, workshops or plants capable of hostile use and men of war in harbour might be bombarded if the local authorities failed to destroy them on giving notice. Bombardment may not be resorted to as a reprisal for the non-payment of contribution, though Article 3, authorizes the bombardment of undefended places if the authorities fail to meet the demands for requisitions provided those are in proportion to their resources. Warning of the impending bombardment must be given if military possible. Buildings meant for public worship, art, science, charitable purposes marked with distinctive signs are not to be bombarded.

(3) Mines- The Hague Convention forbids the laying of unanchored contact mines unless they were so constructed as to become harmless within one hour after control of them had ceased. It also prohibited the laying down of anchored contact mines that did not become harmless on getting loose, from their moorings. It also prohibited the laying of contract mines away from the coast or enemy ports. The point is that when mines are laid every possible precaution must be taken for the security of peaceful shipping. According to Holland the terms of the Convention were timid enough, as there were no restrictions on locality for the placing of anchored mines. Germany claimed a right to sow mines on the high seas. The provisions of the convention were violated by Germany during the two World Wars.

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