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).

Naming Disputed Maritime Features in the South China Sea – “What’s in a Name?”

China and Vietnam have a long history of incidents, because of them acting in relation to disputed parts of the South China Sea. A new chapter to this history was added at the beginning of May 2020, when Vietnam learned that China provided 80 maritime features, belonging to the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea, with Chinese names. Three decades earlier, in 1983, China embarked on a similar naming exercise of features in the South China Sea.

Looking at the history of incidents between China and Vietnam, it was not the first time an act of naming by one of the States created conflict between the two States. An incident also occurred after Vietnam proclaimed that the ‘South China Sea’ was henceforth to be named as the ‘West Philippine Sea’ in 2012, to which China protested heavily.

But what is the legal value of naming maritime features in the Spratly and Paracel islands by China, from an international law perspective?

Faced with the recent naming, Vietnam protested. Reportedly, it even contemplated to take the issue to international adjudication in order to be settled. Vietnam’s act of protesting is significant from the view of international law, however. This is because, by undertaking a unilateral act, a State, in this case China, may have sought to assert a right, or might have sought to create a new right. A lack of a response to a unilateral act might be construed as that a State has acquiesced in the other State’s claim. In a nutshell, acquiescence is inferred from silence or inaction in a situation that a State should have responded. Protesting against the other State’s unilateral conduct may therefore sometimes be necessary for a State to protect its claims. However, the need for producing a response is intertwined with the circumstances at hand, and not all acts actually demand a response.

International law does not address the issue of naming explicitly (see more generally on this issue E. Franckx, M. Benatar (et al.), ‘The Naming of Maritime Features Viewed from an International Law Perspective’, China Oceans Law Review (2010), pp. 1-40), raising the question of how to deal with this issue. A possible answer may lie in the fact that a State has sovereignty over its territory. The latter encompasses a State’s mainland territory, internal waters, territorial sea, archipelagic waters and high-tide features, as well as the air space above them. An implication of the sovereignty that a State has over its territory, coming down to that it enjoys full powers, would be that this also extends to the naming of maritime features that are located within its territory. By that same token, the name attributed by a State to a part of its territory would be opposable to other States. Of key importance in this regard is that this opposability would extend only to parts of what can be considered a State’s territory. But all this is premised, however, on that there is one State that has a clear title over a territory. This is problematic when applied to disputed parts of the South China Sea, to which multiple States lay claim.

The precise motive underlying the naming exercise by China is difficult to pinpoint, and various motivations have been suggested for what led China to embark thereon. One article has argued that the naming was a reaction to Vietnam being particularly active in relation to the South China Sea, considering Vietnam to have taken advantage of China’s attention having been on dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. Allusions were also made that, through this act, China sought to reassert its ‘sovereignty over the South China Sea’. This seems to imply that at least part of the reason lying behind the naming of the maritime features in the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, is that China perceives it as way to strengthen its sovereignty claim over them. A difficulty is, however, that some of these maritime features are submerged. The consequence of this is that they are thus not territory. At the same time, only territory has entitlements to maritime zones under the Law of the Sea.

Maritime features that are below water at high tide are called low-tide elevations (Article 13 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOSC)). A further consequence from that low-tide elevations are not territory, besides that they lack the ability to generate maritime zones of their own, is that there cannot be a sovereignty dispute between States over a low-tide elevation. This does not mean that they are not without relevance, however: if a low-tide elevation is located within 12 nautical miles (nm) from the baselines of a territory, it belongs to the State that has sovereignty over this nearby territory. Also, a low-tide elevation can be located within a disputed maritime area: that is, if the low-tide elevation is located within 12 nm from a disputed territory – for example, a disputed island.

A few of the recently named maritime features are high-tide features. When high-tide features are permanently above water and naturally formed, they are considered to be territory. This means that high-tide features may also be subjected to competing sovereignty claims by States. Under the LOSC, islands are divided into two categories: rocks under Article 121(3), and fully-entitled islands, as defined by Article 121(2). The main difference lies in the entitlements that they respectively have to maritime zones. Whereas rocks are only entitled to a territorial sea, not going beyond the maximum limit of 12 nm, and a contiguous zone of an additional 12 nm, fully-entitled islands are entitled to a territorial sea, a contiguous zone, an exclusive economic zone, and a continental shelf; and, if the requirements under Article 76 of the LOSC are met, also an extended continental shelf.

But what legal weight does the act of naming by a State carry in establishing ownership of a high-tide feature, or to indicate evidence of ownership? Put differently, does the act of naming lead to a State’s sovereignty claim being strengthened as a result?

Under international law, States that lay claim to the same land territory, which includes high-tide features, may seek to fortify their sovereignty claim through peaceful means. However, a State’s claim will not be further fortified once the critical date has passed. Although it may be difficult to pin down its exact moment in time, the critical date refers to the date when the sovereignty dispute between the States concerned has crystallised.

As to the question which State has sovereignty over a land territory, in the absence of a relevant treaty, the main issue is which State has a stronger title. International courts and tribunals, if they were to deal with a dispute of this type, will usually first identify the acts of peaceful administration that have been taken by States claiming the same piece of territory, to then weigh and compare these acts, to decide which of the States concerned has a stronger title over the land territory.

International case law in which the aspect of the naming of maritime features played a more substantial role is limited. However, the case of Minquiers and Ecrehos, which was dealt with by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 1953, does shine some light on the relevance of naming. In this case, the fact that the United Kingdom (UK) did not name some of the islands that were in dispute, was used by France to argue that they were not within the control of the UK (Counter Memorial of France, pp. 382-383). Particularly relevant in this regard is that the ICJ noted that it “cannot draw any conclusion from the naming of the islands since this question must ultimately depend upon evidence which relates directly to the possession of these groups” (Minquiers and Ecrehos, p. 55). Here, the aspect of naming did not play a significant role for the ICJ in determining which of the States concerned had a stronger title over the islands, because it did not evidence possession of the islands.

In light of the above, it is essential to make a distinction between low-tide elevations and high-tide features, as a sovereignty dispute can only arise concerning the latter. Then, a State may seek fortify its sovereignty claim peacefully. Whether a claim will be strengthened is entwined with whether the critical date has passed, however. But in the context of establishing sovereignty over what can be considered high-tide features, their naming may be an act that actually carries little weight for an international court or tribunal, if it would be asked to deal with the matter.

Abandoning the myth that decisions rendered by international arbitral tribunals are not binding

Against the backdrop of China recently renaming several disputed insular features in the South China Sea, which led to protests from Vietnam, the suggestion has been raised that Vietnam might to turn to “the world arbitration court” to have the matter adjudicated. Although a court by that name does not exist, it may be inferred that reference is made here to an international court or tribunal. A myth rears its head in the same news article, one that has been perpetuated particularly after the Arbitral Tribunal established pursuant to Annex VII of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) rendered its award in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China) in 2013. The myth being that “Arbitral rulings aren’t binding”. To reinforce this seriously flawed argument, the news article does indeed invoke the South China Arbitration.

After the Arbitral Tribunal delivered its decision on the merits in South China Sea Arbitration, some have used it to argue that this arbitral decision, and arbitral decisions in general, are not binding. Having declared under Article 298(1)(a) of the LOSC its non-acceptance of arbitration with respect to maritime boundary disputes or those involving historic titles, China argued that the Arbitral Tribunal could not consider the case on the merits. It also abstained from participating in the proceedings. After the Tribunal assumed that it had jurisdiction over the dispute, and went on to hand down its final decision on the merits, China reinforced its earlier expressed intentions that it would not follow the final outcome of the award.

However, from the fact that China did not recognise the validity of the Tribunal’s decision, the inference cannot be drawn that it is therefore not legally binding. To the contrary, Article 296(1) of the LOSC leaves no doubt in this regard: any decision rendered by a court or tribunal assuming jurisdiction over the dispute “shall be final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute”. This is reinforced in Article 11 of Annex VII of the LOSC:  an “award shall be final and without appeal, unless the parties to the dispute have agreed in advance to an appellate procedure. It shall be complied with by the parties to the dispute”. In this light, rather than perpetuating this myth that decisions of international tribunals are not binding, the opposite, that is abandoning this rhetoric, is far more appropriate.