Human Rights

Iran’s Seizure of U.S. Sailors, Vessels Likely Violated Maritime Law

Iran’s seizure of two American naval vessels and their crews on Tuesday likely violated the principle of “innocent passage” in international maritime law, The Wall Street Journal reported (Google link) on Thursday.

Officials are looking into whether one of the sailors may have “fat-fingered” a navigation unit, entering erroneous coordinates and veering into Iranian waters by mistake. Even so, under international maritime law, such “innocent passage” should have brought an instruction to leave those waters, not a seizure and detention, according to Navy manuals citing the international standards.

Iran also broadcast images of the sailors kneeling down with their hands behind their heads, as well as a message from a detained serviceman who apologized for the incident and admitted fault for straying into Iranian waters, raising questions as to whether Iran breached the Geneva Conventions. Although the United States and Iran are not officially at war, a video confession from a detained soldier violates the treaties’ intent.

But James Ross, legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, said it has long been recognized that it is unlawful for governments to use photographs or videos of military detainees for propaganda purposes, including publicly releasing a “confession.”

“While the Geneva Conventions may not formally apply here, the Iranian government actions would appear to be contrary to the intention of the Geneva Conventions,” Mr. Ross said.

It is still unclear under what circumstances the two American vessels and their ten crew members were taken by Iran. Although an unnamed U.S. official initially told the Associated Press that at least one of the crafts suffered from “mechanical problems,” the Journal reported that defense and military officials are skeptical of this possibility as both vessels were able to leave Farsi Island, where they were held, unaided.

Eli Lake of Bloomberg View presented a similar case on Thursday, arguing that “Iran’s handling of the situation violated international norms, and to pretend otherwise is — to borrow a phrase from sociology — to define deviancy down.”

Let’s start with the incident itself. Two small U.S. sea craft transiting between Kuwait and Bahrain strayed into Iranian territorial waters because of a mechanical failure, according to the U.S. side. This means the boats were in distress.

That is hardly unprecedented. International maritime law spells out the appropriate response — and in a situation like this, it does not give Iran the right to board these boats or detain the sailors, as the Iranian navy did.

Lake’s comments echoed those of Sen. John McCain (R – Ariz.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said on Wednesday that “under international law, sovereign immune naval vessels are exempt from detention, boarding, or search. Their crews are not subject to detention or arrest.” McCain is a former Navy officer and was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

Other legislators have also weighed in on Iran’s contravention of international norms and laws during its seizure of the vessels and their crews.

“We now must fully investigate Iran for possible violations of the Geneva Convention and ensure these sailors were treated properly,” said Rep. Mike Pompeo (R – Kans.) in a statement on Wednesday.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R – Ill.) reinforced these concerns in his own statement, arguing, “It is completely unacceptable for an adversarial regime to detain American service personnel for any amount of time, be it 1 day or 444 days. I’m deeply disturbed by reports that our sailors were videotaped and photographed for propaganda purposes – a possible violation of the Geneva Convention – and that a female sailor was forced to wear a hijab. This incident illustrates a level of disrespect among the regime not just for the United States, but for the basic principles of human dignity agreed to by all civilized nations.”

The Pentagon acknowledged that Iran was holding the two American crafts and their crews on Tuesday. The vessels and sailors were released after being held overnight by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Senior Iranian military officials have used the incident to mock the U.S. and its “vulnerability” in the region.

[Photo: ABC News / YouTube ].