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For a long while, international law ignored the presence of people at sea. The two fields of international law which relate more closely to “people at sea”, in fact, were not concerned with them. The old traditional field of law of the sea was developed by states and for states. Its rules, which often refer to vessel and, more recently, to fish, only occasionally mention some type of human, mostly the master and crew of a vessel. Along a parallel track, the relatively new field of human rights, that acquired a solid international standing in the XX century and is today considered by most as one of the backbones of modern international law, appears to consider that individuals may be found only at sea. For a long time, and with few exceptions, law of the sea and human rights never met.
Yet this has changed in the last 10 years. Piracy off the coasts of Somalia, first, and flows of irregular migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, later, polarised the attention of the international community and brought to the forefront of legal discourse the need to ensure that people at sea are protected. This paper aims at presenting this shift in perspective and providing the basis for a conceptualisation of the relationship between people at sea and international law that goes beyond specific categorisations – pirates, migrants etc. It will argue that international law contains a general principle and other rules that may be used to better ensure protection for people at sea and will discuss the role that different international actors may play in reaching this aim.
Irini Papanicolopulu is Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Milano-Bicocca (Italy). She conducts research and has published widely in international law, including among others law of the sea, delimitation of maritime boundaries, environmental law, international humanitarian law, human rights law and the protection of cultural heritage. She has previously worked at the University of Oxford and the University of Glasgow (UK). She is a Visiting Professor at Catolica Global School of Law (Portugal) and at the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland) and has lectured, among others, at the International Maritime Law Institute (Malta), the Institute for Advanced Defence Studies (Italy), the Oxford International Law Course for Military Lawyers (UK), and the San Remo International Institute of Humanitarian Law (Italy). She is the author of International Law and the Protection of People at Sea(OUP 2018) and ll confine marittimo: Unità o pluralità?([The maritime boundary: Unity or plurality?] Giuffrè 2005), the editor of Gender and the Law of the Sea(Brill, 2019) and other collective volumes, as well as the author of numerous other and book chapters. Professor Papanicolopulu is Co-Convenor of the Interest Group on Law of the Sea of the European Society of International Law and of the Italian Society of International Law. She has occasionally acted as legal advisor for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Italian Ministry of the Environment, and other States and international organisations.
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