Monday, September 20, 2010
Recent news reports regarding a dispute over a Chinese ship captain arrested by Japan have echos of the Lotus case from 1927. International law scholars will recall that the Lotus case involved a collision between a French vessel and a Turkish vessel on the high seas. The French vessel took the survivors to Turkey. During an investigation of the matter, the Turkish officials arrested the officer in charge of the French vessel, Lt. Demons. France protested Turkey's assertion of jurisdiction over its citizen. The Permanent Court of International Justice held that there was no rule of international law that prevented Turkey's assertion of jurisdiction.
The present case involves the collision of a Chinese fishing vessel with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel in the East China Sea. Both China and Japan have claims to the waters where the collision occurred. Japan arrested the captain of the Chinese vessel and China has vehement protested the arrest and detention of its citizen. The lawfulness of Japan's arrest is not clearly decided by the Lotus case, however, because the waters where the collision occurred are not considered highs seas (although the status of those waters is in dispute) and because there are more well-developed treaty rules (e.g., the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) governing collisions today than existed at the time of the Lotus case. So the outcome of this matter remains to be seen.