Who enforces the law on cruises?

Cruise ships are a place for relaxation, but what happens when things go awry? The law on a cruise ship is murky at best.

If you are onboard a ship that is 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from the coast of a nation, you are in international waters (also known as the ‘high seas’). Within this region, the laws are determined by the nation in which the cruise ship is registered.

Many cruise operators register their ships in nations for economical benefits (known as flying a ‘flag of convenience’ or FOC), which is why more than 50 per cent of the world’s merchant ships are registered in Panama. An FOC allows cruise ship operators to dodge taxes, pay workers less and avoid moral obligations.

The pros of this can include perks such as more affordable prices, onboard marriages and gambling. The cons can include victims of theft, sexual assault and murder being left without justice or legal recourse.

While passengers usually enjoy an idyllic existence, when problems do arise, very little can be done about them. Courses of action the cruise ship can take towards troublemakers include

  • locking them up in their room (that’s right, the same punishment a child might receive for uttering an unspeakable word in the presence of their parents)
  • locking them up in the brig (slightly more embarrassing)
  • casting them ashore (at the next port of call, possibly fulfilling a childhood fantasy from a pirate novel)
  • handing them over to authorities at the next port of call.

While handing a criminal over to the authorities seems like a reasonable step on the path to justice, it’s not that simple.

For example: ‘Hypothetical Susan’ is on a cruise between Melbourne and Bali and someone sexually assaults her in international waters. The cruise ship decides to hand the assailant over to the authorities in Sydney, along the way.

The authorities in Sydney now have an alleged criminal in their custody, however, the cruise ship where the crime was committed is registered to Liberia, therefore Liberia is responsible for the investigation.

To make matters worse, it can take days to make it to the next port, so evidence can be lost or even tampered with by cruise line employees who might place the reputation of the cruise company above the safety of individual passengers.

So what happens next? Usually, nothing. A recent study has suggested that only 7 per cent of crimes committed onboard cruise ships are prosecuted.

Onboard the ship, the staff and security personnel reign supreme (under the captain) and are tasked with creating a safe space for the passengers, but they are not responsible for much after a crime has been committed.

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Written by ryanbo


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