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Distributing Responsibility between Shipmasters and the Different States Involved in SAR Disasters


The duty to save life at sea can today be considered a rule of general inter- national law. However, the concept of “duty to save life at sea” hides a complex web of international regulations, scattered across several treaties providing obli- gations both for shipmasters and a plurality of States (namely flag States, coastal States, States receiving distress signals, etc.). This paper addresses the question of the respective responsibility of the different subjects involved in search and res- cue activities. After a short introduction to the evolution of international law in this field, the paper investigates the relationship between shipmasters and States. This first part of the study shows that there are cases in which a shipmaster’s conduct can be attributed to a State, and that, even in case of non-attribution, the “fact” that a shipmaster’s conduct violates the duty to rescue can “reveal” a wrongful act by one or more States. The analysis proceeds to the relationships between the different States involved in rescue activities, highlighting how differ- ent degrees of liability may co-exist, the sources of which can lie in the violation of either different obligations or a common obligation to cooperate.