Fact Checking The Movies: International Water Law

According to movies like "The Meg," anything goes on the high seas. Turns out it’s not that simple. 

The Meg Shotbyshot

The Meg is a modern camp masterpiece stuffed to the gills with memorable moments. Least of all the greatest line ever uttered in a motion picture (a very earnest: “you might be a son of a bitch, but you’re sure as hell no coward!”). Now be it from me to impose logic on a film that misestimates megalodon length by ~30 feet. But listen, when pedantic film duty calls, I answer.

There is a scene in The Meg where things get heated and one character threatens to beat up another character. The belligerent party reminds his would-be victim that they’re in international waters and that he is within his legal right to be as punch-happy as he wants. In the end, the aggressor storms off and a charming, ostensibly reliable dude played by Cliff Curtis informs us (he practically looks into the camera) that this is the case: assault is fair game, legally, in the no-man’s land of the sea. Yar.

Leaving the theatre I mulled over typical post-Meg questions. Will Elon Musk sue for libel? How did the Megs get enough to eat in the trench? How did Jonas’ initial Meg encounter take place if the thermocline was still intact? While reflecting on The Meg’s many brain puzzles, I also realized that I knew nothing about international water law apart from the “anything goes” shtick from film and television.  And that…had to be true. Right?

First, some basics: legally, water is split into internal, territorial, and international zones. Internal waters are exactly what you think they are and comprise a country’s rivers, lakes, canals, etc. Territorial waters are coastal waters which range anywhere from 12 to 24 nautical miles from a coast’s low-water mark. They used to be measured by how far a cannon could shoot because history was nuts. Everything else is international water aka the high seas, where according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: “no state may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty.”

Not to rain on anyone’s freedom parade, but just because no country can claim sovereignty over a hunk of space doesn’t mean that national laws and jurisdictions don’t apply there. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that the high seas are peaceful, either. All aboard the HMS Killjoy!


Movies: You can punch/kill people without repercussions

As seen in The Meg, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

the Meg international water law

Fact

International water might not belong to any one nation, but the people throwing the punches sure do. There are a couple items under UNCLOS that would lead to legal repercussions for physical assault on the high seas. A violent offender can be prosecuted by the country they are from, the country their victim is from, the country the vessel is registered under, or more generally, any country that perceives your violent ways as pirate-adjacent. And in case you were wondering, there is a very fun article (Article 101) that effectively describes the ins and outs of pirate activity and spoiler: the Venn diagram of “pirate stuff” and “stuff movies told me was legally cool to do in international waters” is a circle. 


Movies: You can get married

As seen in The African Queen, several Pirates of the Caribbean films…

The African Queen International Waters

Not…really.

Fact

Marriage licenses are a hassle — why not track down the nearest captain, row out to the territorial water line and get hitched on the high seas? This is as much a misunderstanding of international water law as it is the legal rights of ship captains. While there are circumstantial and national variances, generally speaking, sea captains cannot perform marriages on the sea (or land) by virtue of their maritime license alone. Other headache-inducing wrinkles like proper documentation and vessel registry suck all the spontaneity out of it.


Movies: You can just set up an evil base if you want to

As seen in a handful of James Bond films, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The Spy Who Loved Me International Waters

Fact

Article 87 of UNCLOS guarantees the right of States to “construct artificial islands and other installations” and to conduct whatever scientific tomfoolery they desire. But, as ever: fine print. Your evil research base must comply with certain rules that basically amount to 1) don’t be a dick, and 2) if you are a dick, whoever’s flag you’re flying gets to prosecute you. And if you’re thinking that being stateless would be a fun loophole, think again because that’s a fast pass to having universal jurisdiction breathing down your neck aka the opposite of a good time.


Why would movies stick to such an inaccurate story, you ask? Well, there are two big reasons. The first is that the legal realities of international waters are a lot less sexy than “it’s the wild west, but wetter.” The second reason is that once you start digging your naively inquisitive hands into high sea legislation you start to realize a very uncomfortable truth that is, in addition to not being very sexy, a huge fucking bummer.

The truth about high seas law is that in belonging to no one, they effectively belong to everyone. But internationally shared responsibility has an uncomfortable consequence: more often than not, nothing actually gets done unless there’s a political or financial incentive. When the ice starts to melt in the waters above oil-rich seabeds, countries give a considerable amount of shits. But when it comes to the indentured servitude or environmental needs like regulating fishing in protected areas, or not intentionally dumping fuel sludge into the water, everybody’s problem suddenly becomes nobody’s problem.

Very big sharks are a goofily obvious threat; the kind of fantastical problem that makes dramatic actions like punching first and worrying about lawsuits never a good time. It’s a lot more fun to associate “zero accountability” with brazen cowboy types than with international parties failing to do the hard work of enforcing idealistic strong-rules.

The Office Killjoy

my work here is done

Burgeoning wine mom and talented napper. Secretly just three toddlers in a trenchcoat.