The thesis investigates international law and jurisdiction over illegal drug trafficking vessels on the high seas. Illegal drug trafficking is prevalent, with, for example, States reporting record drug seizures from Drug Trafficking Vessels [DTVs] when they are interdicted on the high seas. Transnational organized crime groups also adopt new and more sophisticated methods for drug smuggling, such as the use of self-propelled semisubmersible craft [‘narco-submarines’], intentionally flagging vessels to State’s with open registers, or not flagging vessels at all, leaving them stateless. Therefore, in consideration of all these factors, a fundamental research question emerges concerning DTV interdictions on the high seas, namely: whether and, if so, the extent to which, the international law of the sea, as set out in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea [LOSC] and relevant customary international law, provide an adequate legal framework for the interdiction of DTVs on the high seas. That said, the law of the sea is not the only body of law addressing drug trafficking at sea. The 1988 Vienna Convention is a significant transnational crime convention that considers this recurrent problem, which has given rise to additional agreements at the regional and bilateral levels. As such, the thesis considers the adequacy of this web of agreements for states seeking to exercise criminal jurisdiction over DTVs on the high seas.
Through a doctrinal analysis of these agreements, the research identifies gaps in the law; for example: both the 1988 Vienna Convention and the LOSC are silent on the question of the exercise of criminal jurisdiction over vessels on the high seas. Similarly, the use of vessels without nationality in drug trafficking exposes further gaps in the applicable law. This underscores the practical implications of these doctrinal lacunae; indeed, they manifest every day when States are conducting high seas interdictions.
Therefore, the thesis moves beyond a strict doctrinal analysis to incorporate empirical data gathered from practitioners in the field. The empirical data furthers the doctrinal research by identifying how some States overcome the lacunae in the relevant law. Of note here is the contemporary approach of the U.S. to high seas interdictions, in part as the accepted global leader in DTV interdictions. As such, the thesis reviews this approach, relative to the relevant international law, which also captures an assessment of bilateral drug interdiction agreements, domestic statutes, and associated case law. The objective of this analysis, as supplemented by the empirical data, is to demonstrate how through domestic statutes and other rules of international law, such as the principles of jurisdiction, States may address the gaps in the treaty framework and exercise their criminal or enforcement jurisdiction over DTVs on the high seas.