The legal framework for international sea rescue

10 September 2012

Co-Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law, Associate Professor Tim Stephens, says the legal situation is not so clear cut when it comes to international sea rescue.

According to reports, a former senior diplomat accused Australia of contributory negligence in the sinking of an asylum seeker boat in waters off Indonesia last week in which it's estimated 100 people died.

However, speaking to SBS Radio World News Australia, Associate Professor Stephens says Australia's main legal obligation to save lives at sea is derived from the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.

"Under the Convention, there are a number of search and rescue regions," he asserts.

"Australia has a very large search and rescue region and to our north Indonesia has a large search and rescue region as well.

"The terrible tragedy which occured last week really shows how the system is not functioning as well as it should.

"The events took place initially within Indonesia's territorial sea and the boat appeared to fall into distress about eight nautical miles from the island of Java in the Sunda Straight.

"Then the people were thrown into the water and drifted further south from Java but all of the incidents occured well within Indonesia's search and rescue region.

"Now when that occurs under the search and rescue convention, it's Indonesia's primary responsibility to rescue those people.

"Australia really has to wait for Indonesia to do what it can or respond to calls for assistance.

"There's really no obligation on Australia and it could be argued to be a breach of the Convention were Australia to steam in without Indonesian request or consent."

Listen to or download the audio - Sea rescue law 'not working well' - SBS Radio World News Australia

Contact: Greg Sherington

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