Naval warfare

Introductory text

(For attacks from the sea on objectives on land, see supra, Conduct of Hostilities)

“Naval warfare” is the term used to denote “the tactics of military operations conducted on, under, or over the sea”.[1] The general principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) applicable to conflicts on land (which have to do primarily with sparing non-combatants and civilian property) apply to this type of military operation. Naval warfare nevertheless has certain singular features that necessitate a specific set of rules.

Most of the international instruments governing the law of war at sea were adopted in the early twentieth century.[2] However, it became clear during the various conflicts that subsequently occurred that the rules governing war at sea had become obsolete. It was not until the early 1990s that experts and government officials drew up the San Remo Manual, which clarifies the law of war at sea and brings it up to date, taking account of the developments that had occurred over the previous hundred years.

Though incomplete, most of the work codifying the law of war at sea was done in 1907, the year in which the Hague Conventions were adopted.[3] Eight of the Conventions tackle different aspects of naval warfare. Their provisions deal both with the conduct of hostilities (the laying of underwater mines: Convention VIII; bombardment by naval forces: Convention IX; protection of the sick, wounded and shipwrecked: Convention X) and the protection of certain ships (the status of merchant ships and their conversion into warships: Conventions VI and VII; the right of capture: Conventions XI and XII, which never came into force; the rights and duties of neutral powers: Convention XIII).

The inability of the rules adopted in those Conventions to limit the number of victims of naval hostilities became evident during the two world wars. The rules also proved outdated in the light of the technological progress made during that time. Indeed, a treaty was adopted in London in 1936 stipulating that submarines were bound by the same rules as surface ships, but it proved insufficient: the Second World War was ridden with torpedo attacks on neutral vessels, merchant ships and hospital ships, the indiscriminate laying of underwater mines, etc.

In 1949 the Geneva Convention for the amelioration of the condition of wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea (Convention II) replaced the Hague Convention X of 1907. In addition, Protocol I of 1977 states that all its provisions concerning protection against the effects of hostilities also apply to naval operations “which may affect the civilian population, individual civilians or civilian objects on land”.[4] However, these two fundamental instruments still failed to clarify matters concerning the conduct of hostilities at sea.

During the Falklands/Malvinas War (1982), for example, problems arose with the use of exclusion zones by the warring parties and Convention II’s prohibition of the use of secret codes by hospital ships.[5] Moreover, the armed conflict between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) saw frequent attacks on neutral civilian ships and the use of underwater mines.

Between 1987 and 1994, experts and high-ranking government officials from 24 countries convened several times at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law in San Remo to draft the San Remo Manual.[6] The Manual is a non-binding document modelled on its ancestor, the Oxford Manual,[7] and containing laudable clarifications of the rules currently applicable to naval warfare. Its main virtue is that it allows post-war developments in international law, in particular IHL (1949 Geneva Conventions and Protocol I of 1977) to be explicitly combined.

The San Remo Manual recalls that the key principles of the law of war on land are applicable to war at sea. For example, the principle of distinction and the requirement to take precautionary measures when launching an attack are clearly formulated. The concept of “military objective” was included and adapted to war at sea.

The Manual also clears up certain problems specific to maritime hostilities: it contains detailed provisions on the use of certain weapons (mines and torpedoes) and addresses interaction between ships and aircraft; distinctions between different kinds of maritime zone reflect developments in the law of the sea, etc.
The fact that the text is non-binding and wars at sea are not common in no way robs the San Remo Manual of its usefulness today. It provides States with a coherent document enabling them to take account of the law of war at sea in their actions and legislation.[8] It is today the main reference document for the law of naval warfare.

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • DOSWALD-BECK Louise (ed.), San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, Cambridge, CUP, 1995, 257 pp.
  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, Regions of Operations of Naval Warfare: Reports and Commentaries of the Round-Table of Experts on International Humanitarian Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, Canadian Ministry of Defence, Canadian Red Cross, Ottawa 25-28 September 1992, Bochum, N. Brockmeyer, Vol. III, 1995, 150 pp.
  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, “How to Update the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea”, in IYHR, Vol. 36, 2006, pp. 119-148.
  • MEYROWITZ Henri, “Le Protocole additionnel I aux Conventions de Genève de 1949 et le droit de la guerre maritime”, in RGDIP, Vol. 89/2, 1985, pp. 243-298.
  • POLITAKIS George P., Modern Aspects of the Laws of Naval Warfare and Maritime Neutrality, London, New York, Kegan Paul International, 1998, 678 pp.
  • RAUCH Elmar, The Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts and the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea: Repercussions on the Law of Naval Warfare, Berlin, Duncker & Humblot, 1984, 165 pp.
  • ROACH J. Ashley, “The law of naval warfare at the turn of two centuries”, in AJIL, Vol. 94/1, 2000, pp. 64-77.
  • SHEARER I. A., “International Humanitarian Law and Naval Operations”, in Quatre Études du Droit International Humanitaire, Geneva, Henry-Dunant Institute, 1985, pp. 17-34.
  • VEGO Milan, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice, London, New York, Routledge, 2009, 272 pp.

Further reading:

  • BIERZANEK Remigiusz, The Laws of Naval Warfare, A Collection of Agreements and Documents with Commentaries, Dordrecht, Boston, London, 1988, pp. 161-171.
  • BRING Ove, “The Falkland Crisis and International Law”, in Nordisk Tidsskrift for International Ret, Vol. 51, 1982, pp. 129-163.
  • COLOMBOS Constantine John, The International Law of the Sea, London, Longmans, 6th ed., 1967, 886 pp.
  • DINSTEIN Yoram, “The Laws of War at Sea”, in IYHR, Vol. 10, 1980, pp. 38-69.
  • RONZITTI Natalino (ed.), The Law of Naval Warfare, A Collection of Agreements and Documents with Commentaries, Dordrecht/Boston, M. Nijhoff, 1988, 888 pp.
  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, “Manoeuvring in Rough Waters: the UK Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict and the Law of Naval Warfare”, in Frieden in Freiheit = Peace in Liberty = Paix en liberté: Festschrift für Michael Bothe zum 70 Geburtstag, Baden-Baden, Nomos;  Zürich, Dike, 2008, pp. 427-444.
  • TUCKER Robert W., “The Law of War and Neutrality at Sea”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 50, 1955, 448 pp.
  • WOLFRUM Rüdiger, “Military Activities on the High Seas: What are the Impacts of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea?”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 71, 1998, pp. 501-513.

I. Scope of application: the different zones

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, Regions of Operations of Naval Warfare: Reports and Commentaries of the Round-Table of Experts on International Humanitarian Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, Canadian Ministry of Defence, Canadian Red Cross, Ottawa 25-28 September 1992, Bochum, N. Brockmeyer, Vol. III, 1995, 150 pp.

Further reading:

  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, “The Law of Naval Warfare and International Straits”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 71, 1998, pp. 263-292.
  • LECKOW Ross, “The Iran-Iraq Conflict in the Gulf: The Law of War Zones”, in ICLQ, Vol. 37, 1988, pp. 629-644.

 1. Zones

Cases and Documents

  1. internal waters, territorial sea and archipelagic waters

Cases and Documents

  1. international straits and archipelagic sea lanes

Cases and Documents

  1. exclusive economic zone and continental shelf

Cases and Documents

  1. high seas and seabed beyond national jurisdiction

Cases and Documents

 2. Sea areas for protected vessels

  1. stay in neutral ports – limit 24 hours
  2. by agreement between parties: create a neutral zone

Cases and Documents

  1. passage of protected vessels through restricted areas: exclusion zones

II. Principles of naval warfare

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • BOELAERT-SUOMINEN Sonja, International Environmental Law and Naval War: The Effect of Marine Safety and Pollution Conventions during International Armed Conflict, Newport, Naval War College, 2000, 364 pp.
  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, Visit, Search, Diversion and Capture: The Effect of the United Nations Charter on the Law of Naval Warfare: Reports and Commentaries of the Round-Table of Experts on International Humanitarian Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, Norwegian Navy School of Tactics, Norwegian Red Cross, Bergen, 20-24 September 1991, Bochum, N. Brockmeyer, Vol. IV, 1995, 210 pp.
  • MEYROWITZ Henri, “Le Protocole additionnel I aux Conventions de Genève et le droit de la guerre maritime”, in RGDIP, Vol. 89, 1989, pp. 243-298.
  • MOINEVILLE Hubert, La guerre navale, Paris, PUF, 1982, 152 pp. VEGO Milan, Operational Warfare at Sea: Theory and Practice, London, New York, Routledge, 2009, 272 pp.

Further reading:

  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, “Visit, Search, Diversion, and Capture in Naval Warfare. Part II, Developments Since 1945”, in CYIL, 1992, pp. 89-126.
  • MACCLAIN Ronald S., “The Coastal Fishing Vessel Exemption from Capture and Targeting: An Example and Analysis of the Origin and Evolution of Customary International Law”, in Naval Law Review, Vol. 45, 1998, pp. 77-125.
  • ROBERTSON Horace B., “The Obligation to Accept Surrender”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 68, 1995, pp. 541-552.
  • ROBERTSON Horace B., “The Principle of the Military Objective in the Law of Armed Conflict”, in International Law Studies, US Naval War College, Vol. 71, 1998, pp. 501-513.

 1.   Traditional principles of naval warfare

 2.   The law of neutrality in naval warfare: jus ad bellum or jus in bello?

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • SERSIC Maja, “Neutrality in International Armed Conflicts at Sea”, in VUKAS Budislav & SOSIC Trpimir M. (eds), International Law: New Actors, New Concepts, Continuing Dilemmas: Liber Amicorum Bozidar Bakotic, Leiden, Boston, M. Nijhoff, 2010, pp. 583-593.

 3.   Additional principles

  1. basic rules
    1. distinction between civilian objects and military objectives

Cases and Documents

  1. precautions in attack

Cases and Documents

  1. military objectives

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • MELSON David A., “Targeting War-Sustaining Capabilities at Sea: Compatibility with Additional Protocol I”, in The Army Lawyer, July 2009, pp. 44-54.

III. Means and methods of warfare at sea

Cases and Documents

 1.   Mine warfare

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • DINSTEIN Yoram, “The Laws of War at Sea”, in IYHR, Vol. 10, 1980, pp. 38-69.
  • HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG Wolff, “The International Law of Mine Warfare at Sea”, in IYHR, Vol. 23, 1993, pp. 53-76.
  • REED J., “‘Damm the Torpedoes’: International Standards Regarding the Use of Automatic Submarine Mines”, in Fordham International Law Journal, Vol. (2), 1984-1985, pp. 286-322.
  • STEPHEN D. J. & FITZPATRICK M. D., “Legal aspects of contemporary naval mine warfare”, in Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Journal, Vol. 21/4, 1999, pp. 553-590.

Further reading:

  • LIENANT J.-C., “La guerre des mines au Viet-Nam”, in Revue Maritime, No. 299, 1974, pp. 696-703.

 2.   Submarine warfare

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • MIDDLETON Drew, Submarine, The Ultimate Naval Weapon, Chicago, Playboy Press, 1976, 256 pp.
  • PARKS William H., “Making Law of War Treaties: Lessons for Submarine Warfare Regulation”, in SCHMITT Michael N. (ed.), International Law across the Spectrum of Conflict, Newport, R.I., 2000, pp. 339-385.
  • WEISS C.J., “Problems of Submarine Warfare under International Law”, in Intramural Law Review, Vol. 22, 1967, pp. 136-151.

Further reading:

  • GILLILAND Jane, “Submarines and Targets: Suggestions for New Codified Rules of Submarine Warfare”, in Georgetown Law Journal, No. 3, 1985, pp. 975-1005.
  • KERR Alex A., “International Law and the Future of Submarine Warfare”, in United States Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 81, 1955, pp. 1105-1110.

 3.   Blockade

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • MEYROWITZ Henri, “Le Protocole additionnel I aux Conventions de Genève de 1949 et le droit de la guerre maritime”, in RGDIP, Vol. 89/2, 1985, pp. 243-298.
  • SWAYZE Frank B., “Traditional Principles of Blockade in Modern Practice: United States Mining of Internal and Territorial Waters of North Vietnam”, in JAG Journal, Vol. 29/2, 1977, pp. 143-173.
  • WHITEMAN Marjorie M., “Blockade”, in Digest of International Law, Vol. 10, Chapter XXXI: Belligerent Interference with Neutral Commerce, US Department of State Publication 8367, Washington DC, Government Print. Off., 1968, pp. 861-879.

Further reading:

  • ROWSON S.W.D., “Modern Blockade: Some Legal Aspects”, in BYIL, Vol. 23, 1946, pp. 346-353.

IV. Protected objects

 1.   Hospital ships

(See infra, VI. Hospital Ships)

Cases and Documents

 2.   Other protected vessels

  1. vessels guaranteed safe conduct by prior agreement between belligerents
aa)        cartel ships

Cases and Documents

bb)       vessels engaged in humanitarian missions, including vessels carrying supplies indispensable to the survival of the civilian population

Cases and Documents

  1. passenger vessels
  2. vessels charged with religious, non-military scientific, or philanthropic missions
  3. vessels transporting cultural property under special protection
  4. small coastal fishing vessels and small boats engaged in local trade
  5. vessels engaged in the protection of the marine environment
  6. ships which have surrendered
  7. life boats and rafts

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • CAUDERAY Gerald C. & BOUVIER Antoine, Manual for the Use of Technical Means of Identifications by Hospital Ships, Coastal Rescue Craft, Other Protected Craft and Medical Aircraft, Geneva, ICRC, 1995, 196 pp.
  • DOSWALD-BECK Louise, “Vessels, Aircraft and Persons Entitled to Protection During Armed Conflicts at Sea”, The British Year Book of International Law, 1994, 211-261 pp.
  • EBERLIN Philippe, “The Protection of Rescue Craft in Period of Armed Conflict”, in IRRC, No. 246, June 1985, 16 pp.
  • PREUX Jean de, “Protection du sauvetage maritime côtier”, in Studies and Essays on International Humanitarian Law and Red Cross Principles in Honour of Jean Pictet, Geneva, ICRC, The Hague, M. Nijhoff, 1984, pp. 103-111.

 3.   Protection of enemy merchant vessels

  1. except if they are military objectives
  2. activities which may render them military objectives

 4.   Protection of neutral merchant vessels

  1. circumstances which make them subject to attack

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • JENKINS M., “Air Attacks on Neutral Shipping in the Persian Gulf: The Legality of the Iraqi Exclusion Zone and Iranian Reprisals”, in Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, Vol. 8/2, 1985, pp. 517-549.
  • NAVIAS Martin S. & HOOTON E.R., Tanker Wars: The Assault on Merchant Shipping During the Iran-Iraq Conflict, 1980-88, London, Tauris Academic Studies, 1996, 244 pp.
  • WALKER George K., The Tanker War, 1980-88: Law and Policy, Newport, Naval War College, 2000, 627 pp.

 5. Protection of the maritime environment

V. Maritime exclusion zones

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • POCAR Fausto, “Missile Warfare and Exclusion Zones in Naval Warfare”, in IYHR, Vol. 27, 1997-1998, pp. 215-224.

Further reading:

  • JENKINS M., “Air Attacks on Neutral Shipping in the Persian Gulf: The Legality of the Iraqi Exclusion Zone and Iranian Reprisals”, in Boston College International and Comparative Law Review, Vol. 8/2, 1985, pp. 517-549.

VI. Hospital ships

GCII, Arts 22-35; PI, Art. 22

Cases and Documents

Readings

Suggested reading:

  • GRIMORD D. L. & RIGGS G. W., “The Unique and Protected Status of Hospital Ships under the Law of Armed Conflict”, in JACQUES Richard B. (ed.), “Issues in International Law and Military Operations”, in International Law Studies, Vol. 80, 2006, pp. 263-273. 
  • JUNOD Sylvie S., Protection of the Victims of Armed Conflict Falkland-Malvinas Islands (1982): International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Action, Geneva, ICRC, 1985, 45 pp.

Further reading:

  • CAUDERAY Gerald C. & BOUVIER Antoine, Manual for the Use of Technical Means of Identifications by Hospital Ships, Coastal Rescue Craft, Other Protected Craft and Medical Aircraft, Geneva, ICRC, 1995, 196 pp.
  • DOSWALD-BECK Louise, “Vessels, Aircraft and Persons Entitled to Protection During Armed Conflicts at Sea”, The British Year Book of International Law, 1994, 211-238 pp.
  • EBERLIN Philippe, “The Identification of Medical Aircraft in Periods of Armed Conflict. Identification of Hospital Ships and Ships Protected by the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949”, in IRRC, No. 229 & 231, November-December 1982, 31 pp.
  • EBERLIN Philippe, “The Protection of Rescue Craft in Period of Armed Conflict”, in IRRC, No. 246, June 1985, 16 pp. PREUX Jean de, “Protection du sauvetage maritime côtier”, in Studies and Essays on International Humanitarian Law and Red Cross Principles in Honour of Jean Pictet, Geneva, ICRC, The Hague, M. Nijhoff, 1984, pp. 103-111.

 1.   Specific protection

  1. small craft used for coastal rescue operations
  2. medical transports
  3. neutral vessels

 2.   Loss of protection

  1. using codes

Cases and Documents

VII. The status and treatment of war victims at sea

Cases and Documents

  • DOSWALD-BECK Louise, “Vessels, Aircraft and Persons Entitled to Protection During Armed Conflicts at Sea”, The British Year Book of International Law, 1994, 279-294 pp. 
  • JUNOD Sylvie S., Protection of the Victims of Armed Conflict Falkland-Malvinas Islands (1982): International Humanitarian Law and Humanitarian Action, Geneva, ICRC, 1985, 45 pp.
  • SHEARER I. A., “International Humanitarian Law and Naval Operations”, in Quatre Études du Droit International Humanitaire, Geneva, Henry-Dunant Institute, 1985, pp. 17-34.

 Footnotes

  • [1] Encyclopedia Britannica, online: http://www.britannica.com
  • [2] To consult all these texts, see SCHINDLER Dietrich & TOMAN Jiri, The Laws of Armed Conflicts, 4th ed., Leiden/Boston, M. Nijhoff, 2004, pp. 1055-1178 and 1409-1430.
  • [3] These texts are available at http://www.icrc.org/ihl
  • [4] P I, Art. 49(3)
  • [5] GC II, Art. 34(2); see also Argentina/United Kingdom, The Red Cross Box,
  • [6] The San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea. Prepared by International Jurists and Naval Experts Brought Together by the San Remo International Institute of Humanitarian Law. Adopted in June 1994. Reproduced in IRRC, No. 816, 1995,  pp. 583-637. See San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea
  • [7] Manual of the Laws of Naval War, Oxford, 1913; available at http://www.icrc.org/ihl
  • [8] The German military manual, for example, was based on the work carried out at San Remo: Humanitarian law in armed conflicts Manual, Federal Ministry of Defence, Germany, VR II 3, DSK VV207320067, Zdv 15/2, August 1992, pp. 97-112. The recent military manuals of the United States and the United Kingdom equally follow, as far as the law of sea warfare is concerned, largely the San Remo Manual.