What is meant by international waters and airspace?

What is meant by international waters and airspace?

What are international waters?

According to maritime law, international waters – also known as ‘high seas’ – covers waters surrounding the globe that are not part of the territorial sea or a state’s internal waters.

In the 19th century, the doctrine which says that, in peacetime, the high seas are open to all nations and may not become the subject of national sovereignty became a foundational principle of international law.

Freedom of the high seas now includes freedom of:

  • Navigation
  • Fishing
  • Laying of submarine cables and pipelines
  • Overflight of aircraft.


What is international airspace?

An established rule of international law is that every state has exclusive sovereignty over the airspace directly above its territory, including its territorial sea (technically, airspace ends where outer space begins).

The Paris Convention on the Regulation of Aerial Navigation (1919) affirmed airspace sovereignty, which was restated in the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation 1944.

It stands to reason that every state is entitled to regulate the entry of foreign aircraft into its territory and that all persons within its territory are subject to its laws and regulations.

Airspace that does not come under the control of any particular state, such as the territory above the high seas, is called international airspace.


Which country has legal authority over aircrafts or vessels travelling in international airspace or waters?

In terms of aviation law, if a crime takes place in the air, it will be handled wherever the plane lands.

However, in the maritime arena, it is quite different. For example, if a crew member is fatally injured by a drunk passenger on a passenger ship, the law that applies would be that of the country in which the incident occurred.

In general terms, a state has jurisdiction over merchant vessels in its waters and over crimes committed on such vessels.

For example, if the fatal injury was inflicted onboard a merchant vessel in port in the UK or within UK territorial waters, jurisdiction to deal with the matter would rest with the UK courts – regardless of the offender’s nationality, the victim’s nationality or the vessel’s flag state.

If, however, the incident occurred while the vessel was in international waters, the state whose flag is flown by a ship is entitled to claim jurisdiction over the matter.

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