Explainer: How the law deals with offences committed in mid air or on the high seas

What laws apply when crimes take place off land?
Explainer: How the law deals with offences committed in mid air or on the high seas
Explainer: How the law deals with offences committed in mid air or on the high seas
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A recent Facebook post by a businessman with a photograph of a sleeping flight attendant aboard an Air India flight raked up a furore online. 

While the flight attendant in question filed a police complaint against the businessman for taking pictures of her without her permission, the police delayed addressing it apparently because of confusion prevailing over where the case had to be registered and how exactly  was the jurisdiction of the case to be established.

However, as a report by Murali Thummarukudy in MathrubhumiOnline observes, the jurisdiction for crimes and offences committed in mid-air or at sea, are set in law.

Mid-air offences

The 1963 Tokyo Convention -ratified by 186 countries including India- deals specifically with ‘offences and certain other acts committed on board an aircraft’.

To cite an example, a Singapore Airlines flight on its way from Melbourne to San Francisco can settle a dispute either in Singapore, Australia or the U,S as the laws of all three countries allow them to have a say in the matter.

And if an Indian on board is involved in the said dispute, he or she has recourse to the Indian law too in this regard.

Even the country whose airspace in which the crime/offence/misdeed takes place can legally intervene in the case, even if the case involves non-nationals.

Certain legal provisions of Extraterrestrial Jurisdiction and Universal Jurisdiction allow a country to defend its citizens who have been subject to a crime anywhere in the world. Israel, the US and Spain are some countries which claim such jurisdiction.

Offences at Sea

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea  covers the legal ambit of all that happens on the seas. International Law recognizes the boundaries of a nation as extending up to 12 nautical miles or 22 kilometres of the seas surrounding its coasts, wherever applicable.

But unlike in mid-air, when a dispute occurs in the territorial waters of a particular country but does not bear connection to persons or goods of that particular nation, the said country cannot be legally bound to intervene in the matter.

Pilot/Captain take the final call in an emergency

However, both in  air and on water, in cases of emergency, the pilot of a plane or the captain of a ship have been bestowed with legal rights to deal with an issue that develops onboard, if it would affect the safety of passengers or goods on board.

International Waters

Cases of dispute in international waters are usually decided by the country where the ship was manufactured. Murali, in his article, points out an interesting fact that most commercial ships – for a variety of reasons – are made either in Liberia or Panama.

This is known in maritime language as the ‘flag of convenience’, which refers to the flag of a country under which a ship is registered in order to avoid financial or other regulations in the owner’s own country.

Outer Space

Even outer space is covered by an international treaty called the ‘Principles governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies’.

This treaty clearly delineates that no country on this earth can lay claim to any part of outer space, as it – as a whole – is deemed a universal collective in the literal sense of the term.


Of course, the laws are not always airtight.

An archaic American law apparently states that any American who claims a particular territory as his or her own, and whose claim remains unquestioned for a year, is the owner of that territory.

An American, Dennis M Hope coupled this law with the Space treaty which, according to him, applies only to countries and not individuals, and went on to claim the moon.

He has apparently been selling plots on the moon to people all over the world for as less as Rs 1000 per acre. And surprisingly, Hope has actually found buyers from all over the world!

Loopholes aside, the bottom-line however is that, no person is completely free of the law whether on land, sea, air or even outer space.

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