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Seizing a stateless vessel on high seas for drug trafficking - allowed?

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

Combating drug trafficking on high seas is a challenging affair. One of the hurdles is establishing jurisdiction over a vessel seized in international waters, cause as has been said ‘a ship is like land, in that it falls within the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag it flies’. But how about a "stateless" vessel?

USCG aircraft spotted a go fast boat carrying cocaine in Int'l waters. Upon boarding no vsl registration documents were found. Crew were arrested & boat was set on fire and later sunk. Crew argued that US had no jurisdiction as Ecuadorian flag was printed on hull (corroborated by a USCG video) and no enquiry was made regarding vsl's registration.

Burden was on the US Govt. to show that vsl was without nationality to make it subject to US jurisdiction. As per domestic procedures, statelessness can be established by (a) seeking verification from flag state; or (b) Master fails to make a claim of registry & it is only if on request of a boarding officer, master fails to make a claim of nationality that statelessness is established.

Boarding officers had not done so, and without having secured the identification number which could have established her identity, they destructed her. Majority held - jurisdiction was not established and crew were free to go.

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