Lawless Maritime Warfare

Courtesy Reuters

"LAWLESS" may mean without law; it also may mean violative of law. Maritime warfare as conducted by the belligerents during the World War illustrated both definitions. If anything was clear at the end of the war, it was the necessity of arriving at some agreement upon international law of the sea before the next war should break out. Yet twenty years went by, and no agreement was reached (or even attempted) upon most of the controversial questions which had arisen between the neutrals and the belligerents.[i] The same questions are now recurring in the present war. And it is proof of the sheer stupidity of the alleged statesmen of the world that no one can today say what is accepted law of the sea.

Prior to the World War, attempts had been made in the Hague Conventions of 1907 and in the Declaration of London of 1909 to reach some agreement on modernized rules to govern such warfare. When war came, however, none of the belligerents considered themselves bound by these rules. A new system of warfare was devised by them, based primarily on the policy of starving civilian populations by declaring every article to be contraband, by regulating neutral exports as well as imports (tantamount to a practical blockade of neutral ports), as well as by destroying neutral property and lives on the high seas. All the belligerents engaged in practices previously unrecognized by international law, under a doctrine which was the negation of all law -- the doctrine of retaliation. Violation of law by one belligerent was deemed to justify further violation by its opponents, and this in turn gave rise to still further violation -- utterly regardless of the serious injury to neutrals and infringement of their rights. When neutrals challenged such unlawful action the belligerents paid no attention, except to contend that self-defense justified all violations of rights.

This, as has been said, was simply "the law of the jungle." It is the law which the belligerents in the

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.