Naval Warfare, Legal Regulation of

Naval Warfare, Legal Regulation of

 

Modern international law demands that any military actions waged at sea observe certain regulations called the rules and customs of naval warfare. Most of these rules and customs have been codified in special international conventions and agreements such as the 1856 Declaration of Paris On Maritime Law, the Hague conventions of 1907, the Declaration of London of 1909 On the Law of Naval Warfare, the London Protocol of 1936 On the Action of Submarines in Regard to Merchant Ships, and the 1949 Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of the Armed Forces at Sea. The basic principles of the rules and customs of ground warfare also apply to naval warfare.

According to the rules and customs of naval warfare, naval operations can only be carried on by the naval forces of the warring countries and only within the naval theater. The theater includes the open sea, the territorial and internal waters of the warring countries, and the air space above them. A special privileged status is established for merchant and passenger ships of the warring countries during a war at sea. Merchant and passenger ships traveling in the open sea without guard are protected against unlawful sinking or attack without warning by corresponding norms of international law; merchant ships have the right to visit neutral ports and carry out cargo operations with nonmilitary cargoes; the time they spend in such ports is not limited, as it is for warships. The rules and customs of naval warfare prohibit naval forces from bombing undefended ports, cities, settlements, and residential and other structures. The rules for naval blockades are specially regulated.

Norms prohibiting the use of weapons of mass destruction have an important place in the system of international legal norms referring to the rules and customs of naval warfare. Thus the 1971 Seabed Treaty prohibits placement on the floor of any sea or ocean or underneath them any objects with nuclear weapons or any other types of weapons of mass destruction, as well as structures, launching installations, and other devices intended for the storage, testing, or use of such weapons. The use of floating naval mines not secured to anchors is prohibited.

During war at sea both enemy merchant ships and the merchant ships of neutral countries may be subject to capture if they violate a blockade, carry military contraband, or provide services to a combatant. International law gives detailed rules concerning the legal status of a merchant ship during naval warfare.

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