MASS and the International Legal Framework – A Paradigm Shift or Old Wine in New Wineskins?

One of the issues discussed during the International Relations and Defence Committee of the House of Lords’ inquiry into the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC)[i] and whether, almost forty years after its conclusion, it remains ‘fit for purpose’, was the challenges the LOSC presents for the use of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) (the relevant sessions can be accessed here). Building and expanding on the evidence that I gave as an expert witness on this issue, this short blog post ponders the following question: does the use of MASS – and the connected disappearance of a master, officers, and crew from on board a ship – constitute a paradigm shift for the current international legal framework that requires making significant changes thereto, or are MASS merely old wine in new wineskins that can be accommodated with relative ease?

In a general sense, there is a correlation between the level of autonomy MASS are imbued with and the extent of difficulties they present for the existing international legal rules. These rules pertaining to MASS do not exclusively flow from the LOSC, but also from a number of international shipping conventions, including the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS).[ii] Concerning those MASS where seafarers and the master remain on board, fewer challenges are presented by the current international legal framework. However, it is when MASS are controlled from an onshore remote-control centre, or that the operation of MASS is completely based on algorithms performed by a computer, that problems start to come to the fore from an international law of the sea perspective.

Some Issues Flowing from the International Legal Framework in its Current Form[iii]

Looking at the current debate in relation to MASS, it is widely recognised that some change must be made to the existing international legal framework in order to facilitate their operation at sea.[iv] In these debates, the main bone of contention is how extensive the overhaul of the existing international legal framework would need to be: is it more tinkering at the margins that is required, or is a more significant overhaul necessary? At the heart of this debate is the question whether this exercise can be confined to making the necessary amendments to the international shipping conventions that have been negotiated under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO). For example, would amending those provisions contained in the IMO Conventions in existence today that presuppose an on-board presence – for example, Part 4 of Section A-VIII/2 of the International Convention on Standards of Training Certification and Watch 1978 (STCW Convention),[v] requiring watch to be kept by officers, both on the bridge and in the engine room – be enough? Or, rather, would updating IMO Conventions only resolve matters in part, because of the LOSC, which as exemplified by its context and the language of several of its provisions (e.g., Article 94 of the LOSC) operates on the assumption that a vessel has a master, officers and/or a crew on board?

As regards the LOSC, one issue is whether MASS can be brought within the scope of application of those parts dealing with international shipping. This has given rise to different views, which have ranged from that MASS do not fall under the scope of the LOSC, because of them not being ships/vessels,[vi] to that no difficulties would arise because they are ships/vessels.[vii] Other issues have arisen as well, including around Articles 92, 94, and 98 of the LOSC and the tension that is inevitably created because of these provisions referring to a master/officer/crew, and that flag States have certain obligations, which for their execution rely on an on board presence of persons as well. For example, Article 94(4)(b) of the LOSC prescribes that each flag State must ensure that its vessels have a (properly qualified) master and crew. Under this obligation, each flag State must not only make sure that its vessels have a (properly qualified) master on board, but officer(s) and (not ‘or’) crew as well.

Another issue is that MASS do raise difficulties for flag States in terms of them being able to effectively implement their flag State duties, as is, amongst others, envisaged pursuant to the genuine link requirement. In order for a State to grant its nationality to MASS, there has to be a genuine link pursuant to paragraph 1 of Article 91 of the LOSC. A genuine link is assumed to exist when a flag State has actual control over a ship.[viii] However, how can a flag State exercise control over a remote controller if they are, for example, not located in the territory of the flag State, but in a remote-control centre that is based in another State’s territory?[ix] The way offered out of this conundrum often is that the human controller onshore in a remote-control centre would have the role of the ‘master’. However, this argument is not without difficulties, one issue being that the LOSC speaks of a singular master. This will create difficulties if this requirement is transposed to one or more controllers that are located in an onshore remote-control facility, including in terms of labour standards.

Leaving this issue further aside, if it would be accepted that an onshore controller can be considered the ‘master’ for LOSC purposes, it seems that in order for the flag State to meet the threshold of it exercising its jurisdiction and control in an effective manner, more is required from the flag State in relation to MASS as compared to manned vessels flying its flag. Because flag States are responsible for MASS flying their flag and any legal issues arising, issues that might occur in the relation with the State on whose territory the onshore remote-control centre, and thus the controller, is based, will need to be regulated (this was discussed in one of the webinars organised by the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law (CIL) on MASS, see here). This includes that potential extradition arrangements between the States concerned would need to be in place in case something goes wrong.

The Way Forward

MASS challenge a preconceived understanding that a vessel carries a master and a crew on board. This was similarly the guiding thought on the mind of the drafters of the LOSC at the Third Law of the Sea Conference, which is exhibited by the LOSC’s content and language, creating difficulties for these provisions to be applied to MASS. Because of this, should the LOSC itself be reopened for renegotiation because of it being ‘unfit’ to address MASS specifically, as has occasionally been suggested?[x] The short answer is ‘no’. Sight must not be lost of that the LOSC is a framework convention, which recognises that for certain matters more specific law might be required. The road leading to the LOSC was long, only being agreed upon after close to two decades of negotiations between States. The final text that was produced is rather remarkable, especially against the background of various compromises having to be struck between various, at times, competing interests and views of States. Regarding MASS specifically, States are also unlikely to deem this topic sufficiently important to go through renegotiations of the LOSC, which may well amount to nothing. This is not an unlikely outcome considering that the 168 States being a party to the LOSC would have to be on the same page on how to deal with MASS. In this light, even if States would be willing to renegotiate the text of the LOSC for this purpose, there is no guarantee that it will lead to changes facilitating autonomous ship operations at sea.

But making changes to the existing international law to accommodate MASS can occur via different routes than amending the LOSC, which after entering into force in 1994 has not happened. These approaches are not new, having been used in the past in cases where it was felt that the LOSC could be improved upon to deal with specific subject matters. One such alternative approach, being similarly not without precedent, having been pursued in connection with straddling fish stocks and the Area, is to negotiate an Annex to the LOSC. The development of a de novo regime dealing with MASS provides a further option; a potential difficulty here is that it might be difficult to reach an agreement that is able to secure significant participation from the around 200 States existing today, which all have their own interests. It may also be that customary international law will come to bear out rules pertaining to MASS, although due to State practice being in its infancy, this option is less relevant at the moment.

As a further alternative, whereas amending the LOSC is notoriously difficult, and not desirable, this is less the case for the various IMO Conventions. In a general sense, a key role is played by the IMO in regard of the future regulation of MASS, as is also illustrated by Article 94(5) of the LOSC. Along these lines, more recently, the IMO, to be more specific its Maritime Safety Committee (MSC), completed a scoping exercise with regard to MASS (see here), focusing on the extent to which IMO Conventions related to the safety of navigation (e.g., SOLAS) need to be updated to ensure that MASS are able to comply with them. Other IMO bodies, including the Marine Environment Protection Committee, have not performed similar exercises for other relevant IMO Conventions yet; however, the Legal Committee has examined the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation in relation to the use of MASS.[xi] Of course, by following the IMO route any difficulties existing in these IMO Conventions pertaining to MASS specifically can be ironed out. Or, if deemed necessary, new instruments could be created. But there is a broader issue that may rear its head in this context, one which will only be signposted here: to what extent can the IMO remove all of the legal hurdles thrown up by the LOSC in relation to MASS? If the LOSC operates on the understanding that vessels must carry a master/officer(s)/crew on board, can the IMO introduce rules and standards which are at variance therewith, for example?

Some Concluding Thoughts on the Current State of Affairs

To return to the present and the issue of MASS and the international legal framework as it is: irrespective of the view held as to how extensively the international rules need to be updated to account for autonomous ship operations, MASS cannot comply with the existing international and generally accepted shipping rules and regulations as they currently stand. One corollary to this is that coastal States do have powers to act against MASS when they would be, for example, traversing through that coastal State’s territorial sea. Another effect is that, without the international legal framework providing provisions specifically tailored to MASS, or that its relevant provisions have not been updated to account for their modus operandi, flag States should think carefully about registering MASS. And particularly they should ask themselves the question whether they are in a position to adequately execute their flag State duties in relation to MASS. A more comprehensive set of international rules specifically tailored to MASS will surely take significant time to develop. Connected to this, it will be interesting to see whether the IMO, as it progresses with its work on MASS, will also consider the LOSC and the way in which it may impact its ability to comprehensively deal with MASS.


[i] United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (adopted 10 December 1982, entered into force 16 November 1994) 1833 UNTS 3 (LOSC).

[ii] International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (adopted 1 November 1974, entered into force 25 May 1980) 1184 UNTS 2 (SOLAS).

[iii] For a more comprehensive analysis of this issue see Y. van Logchem, ‘International Law of the Sea and Autonomous Cargo ‘Vessels’, in A. Tettenborn and B. Soyer (eds.), Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Shipping: Developing the International Legal Framework (Hart Publishing, 2021), pp. 25-62.

[iv] See e.g. N. Klein, D. Guilfoyle et al., ‘Maritime Autonomous Vehicles: New Frontiers in the Law of the Sea’ (2020) 69 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 719-734; A. Tettenborn and B. Soyer (eds.), Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Shipping: Developing the International Legal Framework (Hart Publishing, 2021).

[v] International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (adopted 7 July 1978, entered into force 28 April 1984) UKTS 50 Cmnd 9266, with amendments in 1995, which entered into force on 1 February 1997 (STCW Convention 78/95).

[vi] See e.g. M. Schmitt and D. Goddard, ‘International Law and the Military Use of Unmanned Maritime Systems’ (2016) 98 International Review of the Red Cross 577.

[vii] See e.g. J. Kraska, ‘The Law of Unmanned Naval Systems in War and Peace’ (2010) 5 The Journal of Ocean Technology 64.

[viii] See e.g. M /V Saiga (No 2) (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines v. Guinea) (Judgment) ITLOS Reports 1999, 10, pp. 41-42, paras. 81– 83.

[ix] A. Chircop, ‘Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships in International Law: New Challenges for the Regulation of International Navigation and Shipping’, in M. Nordquist et. al (eds.), Cooperation and Engagement in the Asia-Pacific Region (Brill/Nijhoff, 2020), pp. 24-25.  

[x] E. Van Hooydonk, ‘The Law of Unmanned Merchant Shipping – An Exploration’ (2014) 20 Journal of International Maritime Law 410.

[xi] United States of America, ‘Summary of Results of the LEG Regulatory Scoping Exercise for the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation, 1988’, IMO Doc. LEG 107/8/5 (9 January 2020).

Leave a Reply