# Using international waters to avoid legal punishment

I am playing with the idea of a lateral thinking puzzle based around abusing international waters to make an action 'legal'. For the sake of this question lets assume someone from the US is looking to do something illegal within the US.

(Added note: This is a worldbuilding question in that the desired law-free environment would practically be an isolated "world" with its own conditions, and this is a question about the backstory and conditions needed for it to be plausible. i.e. Suppose someone wanted to create a new environment by starting a new pocket dictatorship on an uninhabited island, or even a single ship, barge, or set of vessels, on 21st Century Earth. What set of laws and dangers would they need to work around?)

I know just traveling into international waters is insufficient to avoid prosecution, since your boat will likely be registered in the US and thus subject to US law. Are there any other loopholes to work with this to make it legal though? I have a few examples in mind, but I'm mainly asking for any way one could exploit international waters.

1. If I have my own boat and I use it to travel to international waters without officially registering it in the US would I no longer be subject to US laws?
2. If I travel by boat to some tiny no-name uninhabited island that is outside of any countries boundaries and commit my crime there is it legal? If so how far would I have to travel to get to such an island realistically (ie, are there islands not claimed by anyone that aren't in the middle of the Atlantic)?
3. If I claimed some tiny no-name Island could I declare myself to be an independent country with my own laws? Then could I register boats with my own country and have them travel to various countries? Effectively could I have a "anything legal for a price" service where anyone could pay to be picked up by my boat and take into international waters to do questionable things without it being illegal, since only my very lax laws would officially apply?

Finally, if someone uses one of the above loopholes to commit a crime and comes back to the US, admitting to what he did, what could legally be done? For instance if I murder someone in international waters I likely can still be arrested for premeditating murder, even if I'm not arrested for the actual murder, since I planned it in the US. However, if I commit a crime like gambling, or marrying my favorite barnyard animal, or 'relations' with some 15 year old girlfriend, which doesn't have laws against premeditation would I be free even if I fully admitted and advertised my actions later?

• Also, the US claims the right to punish you for having sex with minors in other places, even if they're foreign nationals and it's legal in the country which you're both in at that time. justice.gov/criminal/ceos/citizensguide/… – user3082 Dec 24 '14 at 20:28
• USA doesn't have a problem with killing people located in other countries: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrorism_in_Yemen#US_air_attacks en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drone_strikes_in_Pakistan#Statistics Don't worry about courts and laws, look out for drones instead. ESPECIALLY on international waters. – Darth Hunterix Dec 25 '14 at 16:35
• This question has been brought up on meta here: meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/651/28 – Monica Cellio Dec 25 '14 at 18:04
• I find this thread humorous. First I agree , you can claim what you have the power to keep. Second if you become a big enough thorn in any established country,your party is over. No one man or family can have enough power,or ability to rage war, to keep a claimed property, from a country bent on having what you claimed ,if they can't force you off, they would just kill you. Good luck with your endeavor – user14368 Oct 9 '15 at 5:17
• Worth a look: Terra nullius on Wikipedia. – mouviciel Oct 9 '15 at 10:25

Most countries have signed the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. (The United States haven't but they largely honor it nonetheless.) This convention defines various types of sea zones, which I won't go into here; Part 7 applies to the high seas, i.e. the areas that have no connection with any state.

The convention specifies rights and obligations related to navigation, including a duty to obey navigation rules to prevent collisions (art. 94, 97) and a duty to render assistance to persons in distress (art. 98). Some activities are forbidden, and any state is entitled to put a stop to them regardless of the nationality of the offender, in particular:

• Transportation of slaves (art. 99)
• Piracy (art. 100–107)
• Drug trafficking (art. 108)

Every ship must fly the flag of one state (art. 91, 92) and is subject to the laws of that state (art. 94). Ships may be considered without nationality if they do not fly a valid flag; such ships can be boarded by warships and government ships of any state (art. 110). While ships without nationality are not forbidden per se, they would have no recourse against the action of a state except within that state's laws.

Owning a private ship is routine and does not preclude your ship from being claimed by your state, and thus all of your state's laws from applying. If you want to sail a ship without nationality, your first hurdle will be to make your state relinquish its claim on the ship — the normal route for that being to register it in another state. Merely omitting registration formalities and not flying the flag might cause you to forfeit the protection that it would bring but will not alleviate the constraints of the laws of your state.

If you manage to obtain a ship without nationality, then apart from a few prohibited activities as mentioned above you can do whatever you like on it. You can murder, but not trade drugs. You'll have essentially no protection, so your ability to survive a life of crime will rest on your ability to hide, or on being too unimportant for anyone to bother.

Your second legal hurdle will be the laws that apply to you as a person. This Straight Dope article has a good overview of that; I'll mostly be summarizing it. Many laws apply both to acts committed on the state's territory and to acts committed by nationals of that state. If you were thinking of violating US laws while located abroad (high seas or not), make sure that that particular law is only in effect on US territory and does not apply to all citizens.

Your third legal hurdle will be the dual situation: states often claim jurisdiction when one of their nationals is injured by an act that would be a crime on their territory. For example, if you murder someone on the high seas, the victim's state will in many cases be entitled to prosecute you. In the United States, 18 USC §7.7 lists “any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States” as one of the cases where “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States” applies. 18 USC §1111 specifies that “Within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, Whoever is guilty of murder in the first degree shall be punished by death or by imprisonment for life (…)”.

I'd expect murder on the high seas to run afoul of at least one country's jurisdiction with most combinations of ship's nationality and victim's nationality. With gambling, you're probably safe if you manage to escape your country's jurisdiction; in the United States, you'd be outside of any federated state, so I think gambling would be perfectly legal. Sex with minors would probably depend on your nationality and your partner's.

A further hurdle will be to benefit from the crime. Payment for any services had better be cash-only, because you'll have a hard time banking without coming into the jurisdiction of that bank's state. And keep in mind that if a customer doesn't pay, you won't be able to sue them.

Finding a tiny no-name uninhabited island in the 21st century (or even for most of the 20th) is a tall order. It could happen — every now and then a volcanic island is born — but you'd need to be diligent and lucky. Your best chances to find land which is not claim by any state are in fact on continents:

• Marie Byrd Land, a sector of land in Antarctica, is unclaimed. Bring a sweater.
• Bir Tawil, a sliver of land in the eastern Sahara between Egypt and Sudan, is claimed by neither country (they both claim the Hala'ib Triangle instead). Bring plenty of water.

You can try to set up shop in unclaimed territory declare yourself an independent country — a micronation. Artificial islands are a popular choice. You won't be the first. Your laws would apply, but you would be without any state's protection, so it would be up to you to enforce them. Furthermore trade with entities located outside your micronation would be difficult. Most countries would not recognize your passport, so forget about traveling. And, just like a nationless ship, the continuation of your authority would depend on both your ability to resist any internal challenge (including assault by raiders, as there is no international convention on the prevention of piracy on land) and any challenge by a “proper” state who might one day decide to claim your land.

Sorry to burst the bubble of your geek's dreams, but you can't just become a nation by saying so. You need credibility, and that doesn't come cheap. Even having an army and controlling a large amount of land doesn't automatically lead to international recognition — over a billion people live in a state that is not recognized by some other state (admittedly, this doesn't prevent these people from interacting normally with people, corporations and even governments of non-recognizing states). To get governments to talk to you, you'll need to convince them to take interest. Running a business of bypassing their laws might elicit their interest, but probably not in a way that aligns with your objectives.

• Note on state recognition - ignoring the diplomatic niceties, it does boil down to (1) do you control the land and (2) can you stop someone from taking it away from you. If yes to both, you're functionally a "state" (even if you don't get invited to the good parties) – Allen Gould Dec 24 '14 at 19:55
• @phyrfox That sounds vaguely like Pitcairn Island, but that's not a stateless situation: the handful of inhabitants are descended from the mutineers from HMS Bounty, and it's a British Overseas Territory. – cpast Dec 25 '14 at 9:13
• Look at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principality_of_Sealand for a real example of a micro nation on an artificial "island". – Tim B Dec 26 '14 at 0:42
• The one rub I don't see you mentioning is the "conspiracy to commit [foo]" laws. Even if one manages to dodge all the hurdles you laid out, the US has been pretty aggressive about using conspiracy statutes against nationals who go abroad for criminal activity. Since the planning occurred on American soil, it fits the definition of conspiracy... the punishment for which is generally pretty close to actual crime. – HopelessN00b Dec 27 '14 at 1:00
• So I take it that a scull shaped secret island evil villain hideout is off the table? – Ghanima Dec 28 '14 at 22:57

One example of using international waters to avoid the law: Pirate Radio. This was a traditional technique in the 1960s for running an unlicensed radio station just outside UK waters, in the days when the BBC had a monopoly on radio broadcasting within Britain. Radio Caroline was the most famous pirate radio, but there were others.

It was not technically illegal by virtue of being moored in international waters until the Marine Broadcasting Act of 1967 but even after that, it wasn't very effectively policed.

When the BBC reformed its stations, in the face of (legal!) competition from local radio, the first thing they did was hire the DJs from Radio Caroline!

• Similar stunts were done in the U.S. off of California. At the time territorial limits were 12 miles, so a boat at 13 miles wasn't limited to 50,000 Watts broadcast ower. – Sherwood Botsford Oct 9 '18 at 20:40

Relevant to the issue of claiming tiny islands as ungoverned or independent countries, you may find it interesting to read about the real-life example of Forvik, a tiny island in the far north of Scotland. It's an unrecognised micronation run by one Stuart Hill, who claims that the entire archipelago of Shetland (with a population of 23,000) should also enjoy independence from the UK. From Wikipedia:

Hill's declaration of dependence is founded on an arrangement struck in 1469 between King Christian I of Denmark/Norway and Scotland's King James III, whereby Christian effectively pawned the Shetland Islands to James in order to raise money for his daughter's dowry. Hill contends that, as the loan was never repaid and no other legal agreement ever put in place, Shetland remains in a constitutional limbo, and should properly enjoy the status of Crown Dependencies such as the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands.

Hill is quoted in one British media report as saying "It's all jolly good fun," and that "Every pensioner should do something like this."

However, he has also stated that "this is not just a whim, something I am doing to amuse myself. This is a serious endeavour to change things here in Shetland, to have a better democracy which will ripple out to the rest of the world, because it is sorely needed. There has been absolutely no response from the authorities so far. It has to come to a confrontation at some point, whether that be physical or in the courts. I am ready when they are."

I'm taking a number of actions in order to get the UK government into court to explain how they derive their authority in Shetland. That authority is based on the notion that Shetland is part of Scotland. My research tells me that, not only did it never happen, but that it could never have happened.

I have no argument with the aims of the Shetland Islands Council and am in total agreement with convenor Sandy Cluness' list of services that Shetland should have control of, and which require Shetland to have more autonomy. However, the fact that the SIC is an arm of the Scottish Executive means it is an illegal authority that I am unable to recognise.

In order to bring things to a head I'm taking a number of actions that I hope will result in a legal confrontation that will force the government to explain their position. So far they seem reluctant to get into such a position.

Current actions include:

• Building a house without SIC planning permission.
• Disturbing the ground without asking permission from Scottish Natural Heritage.
• Withholding VAT and income tax.
• The SIC is trying to charge Council Tax on the Steward's Residence [note: that's what he calls his house]. I am refusing to pay.
• Work on the Sea-bed without the permission of the Crown Estates.
• Inviting oil companies to bid for oil exploration rights.
• Stating that I do not recognise either the UK, or the EU as Forvik's superior.
• The first Forvik-registered vehicle takes to the roads of Shetland.

So far, no authority has challenged the legality of my actions. The longer this continues the more they acknowledge the validity of my position.

OK, so he's clearly a bit of a nutter, but the interesting thing is that they're letting him get away with all this. It's a very good example to follow for your imaginary character who wants to set up a pocket dictatorship on an uninhabited island.

There are no unclaimed islands, but there is a wide variety of nations with different laws with which one might register. You may be able to find nations with laws which grant ship captains sufficiently wide-ranging authority for your purposes. If you have enough money, I imagine there are nations which would accept fairly low bribes to allow you to do what you have in mind aboard your own ship registered under their flag. Some might even be willing to sell you one of their uninhabited islands.

If your setting were in an earlier century, you'd have better luck. In future, you could also try going into outer space.

For practical purposes, you can also count on getting away with things while in the middle of an ocean, but bragging about them in the US might still get you arrested, and won't win you many friends. The court of public opinion still punishes those with notorious reputations in its own ways. And if people despise you enough, they may come find you in your lawless zone and use brute force.

• "And if people despise you enough, they may come find you in your lawless zone and use brute force." Quite. And if they do, who ya gonna call? I'm actually pretty sympathetic to the desire to get free of the nation-state, but I suspect a lot of self-proclaimed citizens of the world rediscover their nationality awfully fast if they need help. – Lostinfrance Dec 16 '15 at 9:21

There are no no-name islands. Even unoccupied rocks have names and some country claiming it. Even if it is covered by high tide and shows only on low tide, someone claimed it.

If you are in international waters outside of law, you are also outside of protection by law. Any pirate, government organization which dislike you, or a criminal could just board your vessel/offshore fortress. You will have to be pretty invisible and protect yourself.

It depends on what laws you break. Assuming you come into ownership of an island, you are still subject to a number of international laws. Breaching these laws will lead to countries like the US or Belgium sending people to your island to collect you for committing these crimes. This is generally handled by entities like the International Criminal Court, though the United States has, on numerous occasions, acted outside of the framework of law in capturing or killing individuals who have threatened American interests regardless of where they are or what the local laws are. Some of this is covered on the wikipedia page for universal jurisdiction.

You have to do some fairly heinous things for the ICC to come after you. Torture would apply, as would genocide. For the US to come after you, murder would probably be sufficient if it was obvious. They could also accuse you of terrorism and drone strike your island.

Of course, if all you want to do is change the age of consent or marry people to goats, nobody is going to care enough to stop you.

• hey, goats deserve love too! why can't anyone understand the love between me and 'Billy'!? :) – dsollen Dec 24 '14 at 19:34

Historically, people have run gambling boats openly. In one famous case, the laws were changed to make him need to go farther out and thus be less profitable. Cruise ships have gambling as soon as they get out to sea.

I can't comment unfortunately, but I thought I had something relevant to say. While as an Australian (only relevant since I saw this warning in brisbane airport), it is illegal as a citizen to sleep with a child, regardless of where in the world it happened. However, what defines a child isn't strictly defined on an international scale. In a lot of countries, including Australia and my own, you can sleep with anyone 16 or over. Yet according to another comment on this page, an american is unable to sleep with anyone under 18, so a 16 year old in australia would be illegal, yet it's perfectly legal for that said australian, plus any other austalian that sleeps with them.

What it boils down to, is that international law is very complicated. What also matters that you either need enough power to enforce it, or be unimportant enough for people to care. America decided to become it's own country, and it had enough power to enforce it's decision. Pretty soon, it became a recognized country. Sealand is a micronation on an oil rig outside england that england relinquished ownership of. Yet because it's just a family on an oil rig not doing anything massivly illegal, no one cares anough to stop them from living there.

• Just a note, age of consent for sexual activity is a matter of state law in the US. The criteria changes as you move frome state to state. 18 is a safe bet though. – Rozwel Mar 21 '15 at 13:50
• Sealand isn't an oil rig, it's an old sea fort. – squigbobble Feb 2 '16 at 10:28
• The age of consent is 18 in California and New York, where most American movies and TV are made, so it's widely assumed to be 18 everywhere. I don't think it's higher in any United State. – Anton Sherwood Oct 28 '16 at 18:24

Here's the reality that the entire history of mankind has shown us and regardless of any national or international laws.

"Land belongs to those who can keep it".

Laws mean nothing. Brute force trumps everything. Read the history of how the U.S. acquired Hawaii. How did European immigrants take America from the native indians? Brute force. If one were to somehow develop or purchase their own atomic or nuclear weapon and let the world know they would use it to defend their claim on their island, chances are pretty good no one would risk challenging you. Everything is about brute force. Don't pay your property or income taxes and what happens? Eventually the appropriate government agency will send sheriff deputies to make you vacate the premises so they can take it. What happens if you resist them? They will either beat you into submission or kill you. Once again....Brute Force. It has always been this way since the first days of the strongest caveman ruling over the tribe because he could brute force beat up anyone who challenged his authority.

The reality is there is no law for those with sufficient ability to use overwhelming brute force. "Laws" are created to delude sheeple into thinking there is a means to apply for redress of their grievance in some court or such and they are also created to intimidate and keep the sheeple in line and paying slavery taxes to whoever is in power. And who is in power? Why those with the ability to exercise overwhelming brute force....of course. The meek will never inherit the earth as the Biblical saying goes. Only the strong who can exert brute force "inherit" the power to rule over the meek. Why? Because they can kill them that's why.

It really is that simple people. So once again, it boils down to...."Land belongs to those who can keep it".

• "How did the European take the Americas from the native Indians?" Oh, I dunno, Smallpox and other European diseases. – JDSweetBeat May 8 '15 at 12:52
• "Smallpox and other European diseases" were a very small factor regarding the brute force used against the native Americans to take their land. It wasn't a factor in the "Trail of tears", it wasn't a factor in massacres such as Wounded knee, it wasn't a factor in forcing them onto reservations so they could be starved to death and their culture destroyed. That was all done via firearms.....and physical brute force. Disease wasn't the main factor. Brute force was and history proves that DJMethaneMan. – Bill Akins May 8 '15 at 13:20
• Between 85 and 95% of Native Americans were killed off by European diseases. You say this had a small role, but from the time Europeans arrived in the Americas all the way to the Trail of Tears the Native American population of North America went from about 25 million to 1 million. The disease-resistant Europeans bread like rabbits and soon outnumbered the plagued Native Americans. Are you saying this did not make it easy for Europeans to take the native lands? – JDSweetBeat May 8 '15 at 13:33
• Disease is not what forced them off their lands. Brute force was. Disease may have decreased their numbers I'll grant you that, but disease didn't force them onto reservations to "pacify" them & destroy their culture. Brute force did that. Let me put it back on you. Are you saying brute force did not do those things? – Bill Akins May 8 '15 at 13:50
• I will admit that brute force is the straw that broke the camel's back, but it was not merely brute force. Miscommunication between the remaining natives combined with a century of being whittled down by Smallpox and Bubonic Plague did more to clear the natives off their land than any European army. – JDSweetBeat May 8 '15 at 14:12

The premise is absurd. A person is subject to the laws of the country in which he or she had hatched the scenario--- it would be a PREMEDITATED ACT.

If the subject had bought a boat/weapon/etc. in (say) America, with the expectation and premeditation of perpetrating a crime anywhere else in the world, the Court would proceed roughly along these lines: (A) WHEREAS the plot had been hatched in America, and (B) WHEREAS the vehicle and/or weapon had been procured in America, and (C) WHEREAS the subject had enjoyed the results of the fulfillment of said plot, Jurisdiction For Prosecution Devolves Upon American Courts.

Even without a direct link between the crime and the decision of the subject to go beyond the physical bounds of, say, America, the defacto assumption of attempting to evade prosecution stands. The Court will always assume prior criminal intent because of the "post-facto" crime.

I had said this is absurd because of this inviolate point: The scenario is a Classic "Thought-Argument" posed in virtually every "Ethics" class, and it is exhaustively re-explored in virtually every "Pre-Law" curricula: Nobody has ever been able to perpetrate a "JAMES T. KURK KOBIASHI MARU SCENARIO" cheat!

• The premise is hardly absurd, as evidenced by your specific objections. A murdered B, a US citizen, and then threw the gun overboard. With no way to identify the origin of the weapon, conspiracy in the US is unprovable. The larger point is that, if the details of the crime are murky, it's not clear that the US could (legally) justify forcing investigators into the contested jurisdiction. With the details unverifiable, a judicial judgement against the offending "ruler" would be essentially based on hearsay, and US courts would have a hard time doing that. – WhatRoughBeast Dec 16 '15 at 19:26
• I must point out your argument is a perfect example of sophism; i.e., an argument used to deceive. The main thrust of the ongoing campaign to reinforce the advancement of globalism has always been to eliminate loopholes through which miscreants may seek to evade justice. – Fred Kerns Dec 18 '15 at 5:12
• Shrug. When "the ongoing campaign to reinforce the advancement of globalism" gets up enough steam to destroy national sovreignity, my argument will start having problems. And you ought to be aware that, in an adversarial legal system (US/UK as examples), what you call "sophism" is the explicit duty of each side's lawyers. A lawyer's first loyalty is and must be to his client, not to some ideal of truth. Limits on the power of the prosecution forces are also important, to keep political considerations from interfering too badly with the judicial. – WhatRoughBeast Dec 18 '15 at 5:27
• You have cited a number of specious theoretical postulates with no justification: What you propose is a crime of passion. About 94 percent of these are punished. Courts rule on the basis of "bad blood," every day. On an ocean liner, the "Law of the Sea" obliges the Captain to surrender B to "origin" authorities. If a tramp-steamer, it's "seagoing law." A tramp Captain would lose control he ignored a murder. No nation tolerates homicide. Even enemies work together to bring nonpolitical murderers to justice. Your premise is still absurd; and furthermore, your arguments are examples of sophism. – Fred Kerns Dec 18 '15 at 6:10
• For the sake of your fictional character, I sincerely hope the chap carefully plans where he will exercise his trigger finger. More than half of the nations follow the French style--- if you are accused, you or your attorney must work very hard prove your innocence, for it is assumed that you are guilty, or the State would not have arrested you, in the first place. They are quite Draconian, but it works very well, for them. That system actually has much with which to commend it! – Fred Kerns Dec 18 '15 at 6:21

The OP wishes to take a boat into international water where he will be away from American law; I assume he is from the USA. The law on international waters states you abide by the laws of which country your boat is registered to or which flag you fly. The OP has suggested "If I travel by boat to some tiny no-name uninhabited island that is outside of any countries boundaries and commit my crime there is it legal?"

All I am suggesting is that the OP register his boat and fly the flag of say "Bir Tawil" or "Unclaimed areas in Antarctica" from the link I provided before. And then go into international waters and commit his American crime

But I have been thinking of doing the same as the OP myself. Whilst the laws about oil rigs and boats maybe roughly the same regarding international waters (as I mentioned in my last post). An oil rig would be a bit more comfortable and feel a bit more like home for me or the OP to commit our crimes.

• Aify ??????????????????? – Toolless Feb 27 '16 at 3:16
• This might be better as an edit to your previous answer, rather than a new answer. – HDE 226868 Feb 29 '16 at 23:33

I delved into the question, if only to satisfy a short fictional story itch I once had. Although mine took on a international intrigue, getting off the grid, new identities, the idea of murder never came into the frame I would be confindent in saying that murder in the open sea and particularly in international waters is quite easy to get away with. (1) The first issue any authority would have would be to determine if a crime had been committed (2) to retrieve any physical evidence related to that crime such as a body, weopon, forensic evidence and (3) determining from that physical evidence to include the most important body who might be involved. Intuitively who might have had motive, opportunity and means.

The first two points may moot themselves if no body is ever found or if the scene of the murder is cleaned of any traces of physical evidence...however, there have been cases prosecuted in court where a body was never found but that was because the degree of circumstantial evidence was enough for no reasonable doubt to exist. In the open water, getting rid of a body should be rather elemntary. 1 of 2 choices, either strip the body naked and chop it up for shark bait and weigh the clothes with something heavy then let it sink or without going through the chopping, you can weigh the body down and let it sink (slashing at the sides to allow trapped gases to escape might be civil of you but if properly weighed down) the sea bottom will be the corpses` resting place and no amount of current will bring it up or ashore. I would say more than 60 meters deep to ensure no holiday divers will discover the accountant, I mean the corpse at the bottom. Without knowing more of the curcumstance this is my final answer.