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What is meant by international waters and airspace?

What is international airspace?

Airspace is the area or portion of the atmosphere above a country’s territory that is controlled by that country. This includes the airspace above a country’s territorial waters, which is explained below.

Under international law, a country’s airspace is considered to be 12 nautical miles out from the coastline of the nation. However, there is no international agreement on how far a country’s airspace extends vertically towards outer space.

Airspace that does not fall within the territory of any particular nation, such as that above the ‘high seas’ is known as ‘international airspace’. Countries may sometimes make agreements to control certain sections of international airspace, for example, a significant part of the airspace over the Pacific Ocean is controlled by the United States of America, despite it being international airspace.

What are international waters?

Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, territorial waters are waters extending up to 12 nautical miles from a coastal state, and they are considered to be within the jurisdiction of that particular state or ‘territorial waters’. If oceans, seas, rivers or lakes extend beyond international boundaries and are not territorial waters, they are classed as ‘international waters’. They are also referred to as the ‘high seas’.

Which country has jurisdiction over aircrafts or vessels flying or sailing in international airspace or waters?

As a general rule, ships sailing in international waters are under the jurisdiction of the state or nation to which the vessel is registered. The same applies to planes flying in international airspace.

This means that the laws of the county to which the ship or plane is registered will apply while in transit in international waters or airspace

Therefore, airlines and ships have to comply with the laws of the country of registration during the flight, which means, for example, that an 18-year-old flying from the UK to the United States on a US-registered plane may not be served alcohol as it is illegal for people under 21 to do so in the US.

If a crime is committed aboard a ship or plane whilst in international waters or airspace, then the country of registration will have jurisdiction to punish the offender. However, if they cannot or choose not to take action, then international law allows the country of the victim (or a person involved) to bring proceedings against the offender.

Additionally, under the international principle of ‘universal jurisdiction’, any nation or state can, under some circumstances, claim jurisdiction to prosecute offenders that commit crimes in international airspace or waters. For example, piracy and slave trading are subject to specific international laws. This means, in relation to piracy, that action can be taken against pirates by any country, without the country to which the vessel is registered objecting.

By all accounts, the laws and international conventions governing international airspace and international waters are very complex. Therefore, if you have encountered any problems in this regard, you should first seek legal advice.

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