In the early summer of 2015
In the early summer of 2015, in the shadows of the unfolding tragedies in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue took a bold decision, allowing armed Police officers to operate aboard one of their rescue vessels. Two years later this exceptional collaboration has come to an end, with extraordinary results.
It is June 2015. In the headquarters of the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue (RS) there is a hectic activity. A buzzing sound of excitement and anticipation.
Even if RS have no experience with international operations at this point, Frontex have entrusted them with a great opportunity to participate in operation Poseidon, in the Mediterranean. For the first time in the 125 year long history of RS one of their rescue vessels will operate in foreign waters.
"The master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving information from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance…."
So begins Chapter V Regulation 33 of the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention: international law, ratified by very nearly all maritime States. SOLAS Chapter V applies “unless expressly provided otherwise […] to all ships on all voyages”. The exceptions are few: Government vessels such as warships – which are nevertheless “encouraged” to comply – and (perhaps rather oddly) “ships solely navigating the Great Lakes of North America […]”
To be clear, then, all vessels at sea, with some clear exceptions, are obliged under international law to assist “persons in distress at sea”. Indeed, this was been seafaring tradition for centuries. So what is there to discuss?