Washington International Law Journal


The duty to provide aid to fellow seafarers in distress has long been enshrined in maritime tradition. The modem formalization of this duty in international law, however, has created a division between the duty to "provide assistance" and the obligation to "rescue." This division has created ambiguity and friction as the former duty applies to individuals and vessels whereas the latter obligation applies to states. In recent years, incidents involving two commercial vessels, the Tampa and the Castor, have starkly illustrated the extent to which this ambiguity and friction in international law translates into negative effects in the real world. In response to these two incidents, the International Maritime Organization ("IMO") has begun to act to address dilemmas raised. The IMO has concluded that there is a true distinction between the duty to "assist" and the duty to "rescue." There is a valid rationale to maintaining that distinction. The solution to the problems faced by mariners in this area cannot and should not be solved by conflating the different requirements and powers implicated by rescue versus assistance. Rather, the solution lies in the creation of an obligation for coastal, port, and flag states to cooperate and coordinate solutions. This Article recommends that the Maritime Safety Committee embrace the outcomes developed at the informal meeting in Sweden in September 2002, which encompass the concept of finding solutions through international cooperation and coordination.

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