Sovereignty at Sea: The law and politics of saving lives in mare liberum

ISSN: 1581-1980
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This article analyses the interplay between politics and law in the recent attempts to strengthen the humanitarian commitment to saving lives in mare liberum. Despite a long-standing obligation to aid people in distress at sea, this so-called search and rescue regime has been marred by conflicts and political standoffs as states were faced with a growing number of capsising boat migrants potentially claiming international protection once on dry land. Attempts to provide a legal solution to these problems have resulted in a re-spatialisation of the high seas, extending the states’ obligations in the international public domain based on geography rather than traditional functionalist principles that operated in the open seas. However, inadvertently, this further legalisation has equally enabled states to instrumentalise law to barter off and deconstruct responsibility by reference to traditional norms of sovereignty and maritime law. In other words, states may be able to reclaim sovereign power by becoming increasingly norm-savvy and successfully navigating the legal playing field provided by the very expansion of international law itself. Thus, rather than being simply a space of non-sovereignty per se, mare liberum becomes the venue for a complex game of sovereignty, law and politics.