Right to Innocent Passage
We know that the Territorial Sea (TS – up to 12 nautical miles) is part of the territory of a country. When one wishes to go to any part of another country one has to obtain permission in the form of a visa. So many times on a ship we see our passage plan passing less than 12 nautical miles from the coast but we have never come across the Master require taking permission to pass through the territory. It is because EVERY MERCHANT SHIP on an INTERNATIONAL VOYAGE has the RIGHT to Innocent Passage to pass through the country’s Territorial Sea without require taking permission. However, for a ship to enjoy this right the following two conditions have to be met:
a). Innocence: while passing through the country’s territory, the ship has to be innocent at all times – this means that the presence of the ship in the country’s territory should not pose any threat to the country in any way. A ship is considered innocent when she is NOT involved in the carriage of illegal arms, ammunition, weapons, drugs, human trafficking, infectious diseases on board, etc. it is very important to note that it is the coastal country’s responsibility to conclude whether a passing ship is innocent or not and the country does it through its intelligence network. If the ship is found NOT to be innocent, the country can arrest the ship the moment it enters its Territorial Sea.
b). Passage: the other requirement is for the ship to be on a continuous passage and pass through the country’s territory without any delay. It is the Master’s responsibility to ensure that the ship passes through the country’s Territorial Sea without ANY INTERRUPTIONS. If the coastal country finds out that the ship is drifting in their Territorial Sea without any cause, they can arrest the ship.
When the above two conditions are always met, the ship passes through the country’s territory without and permission. It is extremely important to note that all the other rights in UNCLOS are APPLICABLE to a COUNTRY, whereas the Right to Innocent Passage is APPLICABLE to an INDIVIDUAL MERCHANT SHIP.