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Powers and responsibilities of coastal / port states

Three interesting decisions by the courts on powers and responsibilities of coastal or port states. First was on jurisdiction of coastal state to investigate a collision incident in its EEZ; second on detention by port state control; and third on liability of coastal state for not responding to a distress signal.

The first case (The Rabah [2022]) involved a collision between a container vessel and a fishing vessel well outside Indian territorial waters but within its EEZ. 12 fishermen died. Owners of the container vessel was challenging the jurisdiction of the Indian authorities to (a) conduct an enquiry / casualty investigation into the incident; and (b) bring charges against the crew. Art.97 of UNCLOS lays the responsibility for penal or disciplinary proceedings for collision on high seas on the Flag or State of which Master (or the crew) is a national. As per the Court, Art 97 applies to high seas beyond EEZ and there is legal precedent in India for that. Here the MMD had ample authority to both investigate the incident and take action against the crew of the merchant vessel.

The second case (Sea Watch 3 and 4 [2022]) related to detention of two German flagged Seawatch vessels by Italian Port State. They were certified as "general cargo/multipurpose ships" but were systematically and regularly being used for search and rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean. Italian port state detained the vessels on a number of grounds. The Court of Justice of the European Communities looked at UNCLOS, SOLAS and different EU Directives in detail and concluded that more detailed inspections can be carried out by PSC only if there are serious indications capable of proving that there is a danger to health, safety & env. These vessels cannot be required by Italian port state to hold certificates appropriate to SAR activities, as that is the role of the Flag. At the most, a port state can require the vessel to implement certain corrective actions to rectify the hazardous conditions.

In the third case (The Maria Anto Raj [2022]), 12 crew died when their sailing boat sank due to heavy weather off Tuticorin. They had repeatedly sent SOS messages on VHF and it was even relayed by another vessel to Tuticorin port, but it wasn’t picked up due to a fault with the VHF system onshore. As a result the rescue tugs could not be sent on time. Port said the incident happened well outside the port waters and the onshore VHF is only for pilotage movements. They also questioned the seaworthiness of the sailing vessel. Court didn’t have any of it and without giving detailed reasons held that both the port and the State will have to jointly pay compensation for the death of crew members.

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