The Historical Origins of the Duty to Save Life at Sea in International Law

In: Journal of the History of International Law / Revue d'histoire du droit international
Irini Papanicolopulu Associate Professor, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca, School of Law Milan Italy

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The article looks into the historical development of the international law duty to save life at sea. It argues that this duty has its origins into legal sources that predated the genesis of international law in the sixteenth century. According to these sources, three separate sets of norms were developed to address the need to save life at sea: rules on the safety of navigation; rules concerning assistance to the shipwrecked and their protection; and rules on the duty of masters to provide assistance. Leaving aside the first category, the article illustrates how these sources where used by seventeenth and eighteenth century international lawyers to substantiate the existence of a duty to assist the shipwrecked and a right to seek refuge for vessels in distress. Nineteenth century scholars added the duty of the master to provide rescue. These scholarly codifications set the basis for a codification, first by learned societies and then by states, during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Codification was eventually achieved through two conventions adopted in 1910. The article argues that while the content of the duty changed to adapt to technological developments affecting navigation, as well as to changing perceptions of the sources and effects of international law, the common principle at its basis has always been part of international law.

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