Sovereignty at sea: the law and politics of saving lives in mare liberum

  • Tanja E Aalberts
  • Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen


This article analyses the interplay between politics and law in the recent attempts to strengthen the humanitarian commitment to saving lives in mare liberum. Despite a long-standing obligation to aid people in distress at sea, this so-called search and rescue regime has been marred by conflicts and political standoffs as states were faced with a growing number of capsising boat migrants potentially claiming international protection once on dry land. Attempts to provide a legal solution to these problems have resulted in a re-spatialisation of the high seas, extending the states’ obligations in the international public domain based on geography rather than traditional functionalist principles that operated in the open seas. However, inadvertently, this further legalisation has equally enabled states to instrumentalise law to barter off and deconstruct responsibility by reference to traditional norms of sovereignty and maritime law. In other words, states may be able to reclaim sovereign power by becoming increasingly norm-savvy and successfully navigating the legal playing field provided by the very expansion of international law itself. Thus, rather than being simply a space of non-sovereignty per se, mare liberum becomes the venue for a complex game of sovereignty, law and politics.


boat migration governmentality high seas international law politics of law sovereignty 



Work leading to this article was presented at the workshop ‘Sovereignty, Territory and Emerging Geopolitics’ at the Danish Institute for International Studies, 3–4 May, 2010; at the 51st Annual Convention of the International Studies Association, New Orleans, 17–20 February, 2010; and at the COST Action IS1003 workshop ‘Organising Fragmented Territoriality’, Zentrum fur Globalieserung und Governance, Hamburg, 15–17 November, 2012. We would like to thank the participants of these workshops for their helpful comments, and in particular Rebecca Adler-Nissen, Katja Freistein, Stefano Guzzini, Philip Liste, Nicholas Onuf, Ronen Palan, Nik Rajkovic, Erna Rijsdijk, Finn Stepputat, Seline Trevisanut, Wouter Werner and Jaap de Wilde.


  1. Aalberts, Tanja E. (2012a) Constructing Sovereignty Between Politics and Law, London and New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Aalberts, Tanja E. (2012b) ‘Revisiting Sovereignty and the Diffusion of Power as Patterns of Global Governmentality’, in Stefano Guzzini and Iver Neumann, eds, Diffusion of Power in Global Governance. International Political Economy meets Foucault, 229–55, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aalberts, Tanja E. and Wouter G. Werner (2008) ‘Sovereignty Beyond Borders: Sovereignty, Self-Defense and the Disciplining of States’, in Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, eds, Sovereignty Games. Instrumentalising State Sovereignty in Europe and Beyond, 129–50, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  4. Aalberts, Tanja E. and Wouter G. Werner (2014) ‘Mastering the Globe: Law, Sovereignty, and the Commons of Mankind’, Paper Presented at the Workshop Assembling the Planet: The Politics of Globality Since 1945, 24–25 April, Danish Instiute for International Studies, Copenhagen.Google Scholar
  5. Abbott, Kenneth (1989) ‘Modern International Relations Theory: A Prospectus for International Lawyers’, Yale Journal of International Law 14: 335–409.Google Scholar
  6. Anscombe, G. E. M. (1958) ‘On Brute Facts’, Analysis 18 (3): 69–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Arendt, Hannah (2000) ‘The Perplexities of the Rights of Man’, in Peter Baehr, ed., The Portable Hannah Arendt, 31–45, New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  8. Barnes, Richard (2004) ‘Refugee Law at Sea’, International and Comparative Law Quarterly 53 (1): 47–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Barnett, Michael and Raymond Duvall (2005) Power in Global Governance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Bartelson, Jens (1995) A Genealogy of Sovereignty, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Beck, Robert J. (1996) ‘International Law and International Relations: The Prospects for Interdisciplinary Collaboration’, in Robert J. Beck, Anthony Clark Arend and Robert D. Vander Lugt, eds, International Rules. Approaches from International Law and International Relations, 3–33, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Beck, Robert J. (2009) ‘International Law and International Relations Scholarship’, in David Armstrong, ed., Routledge Handbook of International Law, 13–43, Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Budz, Michele (2009) ‘A Heterotopian Analysis of Maritime Refugee Incidents’, International Political Sociology 3 (1): 18–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bull, Hedley (1995 [1977]) The Anarchical Society. A Study of Order in World Politics, 2nd edn. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  15. Burley, Anne-Marie (1993) ‘International Law and International Relations: A Dual Agenda’, American Journal of International Law 87 (2): 205–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Butler, Judith (1996) ‘Sexual Inversions’, in Susan J. Hekman, ed., Feminist Interpretations of Michel Foucault, 59–76, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Byers, Michael, ed. (2000) The Role of Law in International Politics: Essays in International Relations and International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Cacciaguidi-Fahy, Sophie (2007) ‘The Law of the Sea and Human Rights’, Sri Lanka Journal of International Law 19 (1): 85–107.Google Scholar
  19. Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati (CIR) (2007) ‘Report Regarding Recent Search and Rescue Operations in the Mediterranean’, 1 June, CIR.Google Scholar
  20. Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati (CIR) (2010) ‘Report Regarding Recent Search and Rescue Operations in the Mediterranean’, 1 June, Rome: CIR.Google Scholar
  21. Comisión Espanola de Ayuda al Regiado (2007) ‘Report on Certain Border Externalisation Practices Pursues by the Spanish Government That Violate the Rights Both Now and in the Future of Immigrants Who May Seek to Reach Spain Via the Southern Border’, 30 May, Madrid: Comisión Espanola de Ayuda al Regiado.Google Scholar
  22. Dean, Mitchell (1999) Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society, London: Sage.Google Scholar
  23. Dean, Mitchell (2007) Governing Societies. Political Perspectives on Domestic and International Rule, Maidenhead: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Dean, Mitchell and Paul Henman (2004) ‘Governing Society Today: Editors’ Introduction’, Alternatives 29 (5): 483–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Dillon, Michael (1995) ‘Sovereignty and Governmentality: From the Problematics of the “New World Order” to the Ethical Problematic of the World Order’, Alternatives 20 (3): 323–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dunoff, Jeffrey L. and Mark A. Pollack (2013) ‘International Law and International Relations: Introducing an Interdisciplinary Dialogue’, in Jeffrey L. Dunoff and Mark A. Pollack, eds, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Law and International Relations: The State of the Art, 3–32, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. EU Observer (2013) ‘Italy and Malta Say “No” to Frontex Rules in Sea Rescue Operations’. 16 October.Google Scholar
  28. Fargues, Philippe and Christine Fandrich (2012) Migration after the Arab Spring, MPC Research Report 2012/09, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, San Domenico di Fiesole (FI): European University Institute.Google Scholar
  29. Fargues, Philippe (ed.) (2014) Is What We Hear About Migration Really True? Questioning Eight Stereotypes, MPC Report, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, San Domenico di Fiesole (FI): European University Institute.Google Scholar
  30. Fearon, James and Alexander Wendt (2002) ‘Rationalism v Constructivism: A Skeptical View’, in Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse and Beth A. Simmons, eds, Handbook of International Relations, 52–72, London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Finnemore, Martha and Kathryn Sikkink (1998) ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, International Organization 52 (4): 887–917.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Foucault, Michel (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison, London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  33. Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, translated by R. Hurley New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  34. Foucault, Michel (1982) ‘The Subject and Power’, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 214–32, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  35. Foucault, Michel (1991) ‘Governmentality’, in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds, The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality, 87–105, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  36. Foucault, Michel (2005 [1970]) The Order of Things, London/New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Foucault, Michel (2007 [1978]) Security, Territory, Population. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–78, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  38. Friedmann, Wolfgang (1964) The Changing Structure of International Law, London: Stevens & Sons.Google Scholar
  39. Gammeltoft-Hansen, Thomas (2008) ‘The Refugee, the Sovereign and the Sea: EU Interdiction Policies in the Mediterranean’, in Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, eds, Sovereignty Games: Instrumentalising Sovereignty in Europe and Beyond, 171–96, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Gammeltoft-Hansen, Thomas (2011) Access to Asylum: International Refugee Law and the Globalisation of Migration Control, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Gammeltoft-Hansen, Thomas (2012) ‘The Externalisation of European Migration Control and the Reach of International Refugee Law’, in Elspeth Guild and Paul Minderhoud, eds, The First Decade of EU Migration and Asylum Law, 273–98, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.Google Scholar
  42. Gavouneli, Maria (2007) Functional Jurisdiction and the Law of the Sea, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Golder, Ben (2008) ‘Foucault and the Incompletion of Law’, Leiden Journal of International Law 21 (3): 747–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Golder, Ben and Peter Fitzpatrick (2009) Foucault’s Law, New York, NY: Routledge.Google Scholar
  45. Goldsmith, Jack L. and Eric A. Posner (2005) The Limits of International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Goldstein, Judith O., Miles Kahler, Robert Keohane and Anne-Marie Slaughter (2000) ‘Introduction: Legalization and World Politics’, International Organization 54 (3): 385–399.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Grotius, Hugo (1916 [1609]) The Freedom of the Seas, Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Henkin, Louis (1999) ‘That “S” Word: Sovereignty, and Globalization, and Human Rights, Etcetera’, Fordham Law Review 68 (1): 1–14.Google Scholar
  49. Hetherington, Kevin (1997) The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering, New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Hindess, Barry (1998) ‘Divide and Rule: The International Character of Modern Citizenship’, European Journal of Social Theory 1 (1): 57–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Hindess, Barry (2005) ‘Politics as Government: Michel Foucault’s Analysis of Political Reason’, Alternatives 30 (4): 389–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Hinsley, F. H. (1986) Sovereignty, 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Human Rights Watch (2009) ‘Pushed Back, Pushed Around: Italy’s Forced Return of Boat Migrants and Asylum Seekers’, New York: Human Rights Watch, September, 47–52.Google Scholar
  54. Jesuit Refugee Service Malta (2009) ‘Do They Know? Asylum Seekers Testify to Life in Libya’, Birkirkara, Malta: Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, December, 74–91.Google Scholar
  55. Kalm, Sara (2008) Governing Global Migration (doctoral dissertation). Lund: Lund Political Studies.Google Scholar
  56. Klabbers, Jan (2005) ‘The Relative Autonomy of International Law or the Forgotten Politics of Interdisciplinarity’, Journal of International Law and International Relations 1 (1): 35–48.Google Scholar
  57. Klepp, Silja (2009) ‘Illegal Migration and Migrant Fatalities in Malta’, Paper Presented at the Workshop The Human Cost of Border Control in the Context of EU Maritime Migration Systems, 25–27 October, Vreije Universiteit, Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  58. Kneebone, Susan (2006) ‘The Pacific Plan: The Provision of “Effective Protection”?’ International Journal of Refugee Law 18 (3/4): 696–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Koskenniemi, Martti (1989) From Apology to Utopia, Helsinki: Lakimiesliiton Kustannus.Google Scholar
  60. Koskenniemi, Martti (2009) ‘Miserable Comforters: International Relations as New Natural Law’, European Journal of International Relations 15 (3): 395–422.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Koskenniemi, Martti (2012) ‘Law, Teleology and International Relations: An Essay in Counterdisciplinarity’, International Theory 26 (1): 3–34.Google Scholar
  62. Krasner, Stephen D. (1999) Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Krasner, Stephen (2004) ‘The Hole in the Whole: Sovereignty, Shared Sovereignty, and International Law’, Michigan Journal of International Law 25 (4): 1075–1101.Google Scholar
  64. Legomsky, Stephen H. (2006) ‘The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Programme’, International Journal of Refugee Law 18 (3/4): 677–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Lutterbeck, Derek (2009a) ‘Migrants, Weapons and Oil: Europe and Libya after the Sanctions’, Journal of North African Studies 14 (2): 169–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Lutterbeck, Derek (2009b) ‘Small Frontier Island: Malta and the Challenge of Irregular Migration’, Mediterranean Quarterly 20 (1): 119–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. March, James G. and Johann P. Olsen (1998) ‘The Institutional Dynamics of International Political Orders’, International Organization 52 (4): 943–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. March, James G. and Johann P. Olsen (1989) Rediscovering Institutions. The Organizational Basis of Politics, New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  69. Malta Today (2009) ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’. 13 September.Google Scholar
  70. Ministry of the Interior (2011) ‘Siglato l’accordo tra Italia e Tunisia’, press release, 6 April, (accessed 25 May, 2014).
  71. Neumann, Iver B. and Ole Jacob Sending (2007) ‘The International as Governmentality’, Millennium 35 (3): 677–701.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Nijman, Janne (2004) The Concept of International Legal Personality, an Inquiry into the History and Theory of International Law, The Hague: T. M. C. Asser Institute.Google Scholar
  73. New York Times (2007) ‘EU Immigration Official Criticizes Malta for Treatment of Migrants’. 3 June.Google Scholar
  74. Pugh, Michael (2004) ‘Drowning Not Waving: Boat People and Humanitarianism at Sea’, Journal of Refugee Studies 17 (1): 50–68.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Rajkovic, Nikolas (2010) ‘“Global Law” and Governmentality: Reconceptualizing the “Rule of Law” as Rule “Through” Law’, European Journal of International Relations 18 (1): 29–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Ratner, Steven R. and Anne-Marie Slaughter (1999) ‘Appraising the Methods of International Law: A Prospectus for Readers’, American Journal of International Law 93 (2): 291–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Reus-Smit, Christian, ed. (2004) The Politics of International Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Ross, Alf (1961) Lærebog i Folkeret, 4th ed. København: Munksgaards Forlag.Google Scholar
  79. Schlag, Pierre (1991) ‘Foreword: Postmodernism and Law’, University of Colorado Law Review 62: 439–45.Google Scholar
  80. Searle, John R. (1995) The Construction of Social Reality, New York, NY: Free Press.Google Scholar
  81. Sending, Ole Jacob and Iver B. Neumann (2006) ‘Governance to Governmentality: Analyzing NGOs, States, and Power’, International Studies Quarterly 50 (3): 651–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Shaw, Malcolm N. (2003) International Law, 5th edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Tondini, Matteo (2012) ‘The Legality of Intercepting Boat People Under Search and Rescue and Border Control Operations’, Journal of International Maritime Law 18 (1): 59–74.Google Scholar
  84. Trevisanut, Seline (2010) ‘Search and Rescue Operations in the Mediterranean: Factor of Cooperation or Conflict?’ International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law 25 (4): 523–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. The Independent (2007) ‘Europe’s Shame’. 28 May.Google Scholar
  86. Walker, R. B. J. (1993) Inside/Outside: International Relations as Political Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  87. Watson, James Shand (1999) Theory and Reality in the International Protection of Human Rights, New York: Transnational Publishers Inc.Google Scholar
  88. Wendt, Alexander (1999) A Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Werner, Wouter G. (2004) ‘State Sovereignty and International Legal Discourse’, in Ige F. Dekker and Wouter G. Werner, eds, Governance and International Legal Theory, 125–57, Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Wilde, Ralph (2005) ‘Legal “Black Hole”? Extraterritorial State Action and International Treaty Law on Civil and Political Rights’, Michigan Journal of International Law 26 (3): 739–806.Google Scholar
  91. Willheim, Ernst (2003) ‘MV Tampa: The Australian Response’, International Journal of Refugee Law 15 (2): 159–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Young, Oran R. (1992) ‘International Law and International Relations Theory: Building Bridges – Remarks’, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law 86: 172–75.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tanja E Aalberts
    • 1
  • Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for the Politics of Transnational Law, VU University AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Danish Institute for Human Rights, Research DirectorCopenhagenDenmark

Personalised recommendations