Gaps in international law when laws are broken on cruise ships

A suspect who was accused last month of sexual assault on a cruise ship was released by a Spanish judge who said he had no jurisdiction in the case, reported the New York Times.

Victims of crime aboard ships can fall through legal gaps because if the incident occurs in international waters it can be unclear which laws apply.

The Spanish judge released the detained suspect after the ship docked in Valencia, stating that Spain had no jurisdiction in the case because the alleged crime was said to have taken place in international waters.

Frederick Kenney, director of legal affairs and external relations for the International Maritime Organization (IMO), told the NYT that there was no cut-and-dried rule and that there was no international law that covered this situation at the moment.

Under maritime law a ship is subject to the laws of the flag country, but few cruise ships are flagged with the countries of their home port, or even their corporate headquarters.

In the Spanish case, the suspect was detained aboard the MSC Divina, which flies a Panamanian flag and is in theory subject to Panama’s laws. But in practice the flag country might not have the resources to investigate crimes that take place far from its shores.

The reported sexual assault aboard the MSC Divina involved a 17-year-old victim from the United Kingdom, according to Levante; the 18-year-old suspect was Italian. The victim reported the assault early in the morning of April 11th while the ship was sailing between Palma de Mallorca and Valencia. The Istanbul Convention states that countries have jurisdiction when one of their citizens or residents commits a crime defined by the treaty. In addition, EU countries have agreements that allow a suspect to be held in one country and transferred to another for prosecution, Mr. Kenney said, adding that “why that avenue was not employed is unclear to me”.

The Istanbul Convention and other European human rights protections, which are more broadly written than national laws, can prove difficult to implement in practice. Robin Roothans, a spokesman for MSC Cruises, said the company reported a “case of alleged sexual misconduct” by a passenger to law enforcement authorities in Spain. They boarded the ship when it arrived in Valencia. “The suspect was handed over to the authorities in Valencia,” he said, adding that the company had assisted investigating authorities.

Ross A Klein, a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland who studies the cruise industry, told the NYT that the company should have known that Spain had no jurisdiction over the crime. “There is nothing stopping the British police or the Italian police from investigation. The cruise line invited the Spanish police; it was a choice.”

Under US law the FBI can choose to investigate cases involving American citizens, even when the cruise ship does not dock in US ports.

Dr Klein said that the law provided passengers with the right to call the FBI directly, but that passengers usually did not realize this. Even when the US has asserted jurisdiction there remain questions about what happens next. Jamie Barnett, president of the International Cruise Victims Association, told the NYT that “we have had so many discussions with the FBI and the Coast Guard once a crime occurs. If I spoke to 100 different FBI field agents, I would get 100 different responses. It’s so murky”.

Martyn Griffiths, a spokesman for Cruise Lines International Association blamed the Spanish judge, arguing that the ship’s captain had followed maritime law in reporting the crime to law enforcement at the next port. “We were quite surprised. In Spain they have low tolerance for crimes like this. It was a very literal interpretation of the law.”