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International Agreements

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
Keywords: international agreements | brussels conference | flags at sea |
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Do we know anything about the Brussels Conference of 1889-90 which was, perhaps only in part, an international agreement on the use of flags at sea ?

It seems to have covered the problem of countries whose ships sailed in international waters, but didn't have a national flag. I have come across two references to it.

One in a 1937 letter about the status of North Borneo in which it was said that defaced Blue and Red Ensigns for protectorates whose native inhabitants were not British subjects were based on Sections 30 to 41 of The General Act of The Brussels Conference 1889-90.

The other was in a Government of India letter of 1917 which said that the majority of the maritime Darbars in the Presidency of Bombay flew the British flag without any authorised license as required under Article XLI of the General Act of the Brussels Conference, and that the procedure prescribed by the General Act was rarely if ever followed. This led, I think, to the introduction in 1921 of warrants for Red Ensigns defaced with the badges of thirteen Indian States.
David Prothero, 17 April 2000

Some research in the US Dept of State's Treaties and Other International Acts Series (TIAS) reveals a "General Act of Brussels," signed July 2, 1890, entered into force August 31, 1891; US ratification January 19, 1892. The purpose was to suppress the African slave trade and limit importation of munitions and liquor into Africa. The parties were (in the order printed in TIAS) the US, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, State of the Congo, United States, France, Italy, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, Sweden-Norway, Ottoman Empire, and Zanzibar.

Chapter III of the Act governs "Repression of the Slave-trade by Sea" in a zone extending from the east coast of Africa to about the middle of the Indian Ocean. Among other things, the parties agreed:

- Art. 25. "to adopt efficient measures to prevent the unlawful use of their flag, and to prevent the transportation of slaves on vessels authorized to fly their colors."

- Art. 30. "to exercise a strict surveillance over native vessels authorized to carry their flag." Art. 31 defines a "native vessel" as one presenting the outward appearance of native build or rigging and manned by a crew from the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, or Persian Gulf.

- Art. 32. to authorize native vessels to carry their flag only if, among other qualifications, the fitters-out or owners of ships are subjects of or persons protected by the power whose flag they carry.

- Art. 41. to deposit at an international information office established at Zanzibar specimens of the documents that license a vessel to carry the party's flag as well as copies of the actual licenses issued.

I would assume HMG published the treaty in the Foreign Office's equivalent of TIAS, but the US collection is the only one to which I have access here.
Joe McMillan, 17 April 2000

I've checked the atlas for the landmarks cited in the treaty. The boundaries of the zone ran down the Indian Ocean coast (including the Red Sea and Persian Gulf) from Baluchistan (now part of Pakistan) to the middle of Mozambique, then south along about the 37 degree meridian to the 26th parallel, east to a point 20 miles south of Madagascar, then northward staying 20 miles off the Madagascar coast to the northern tip of the island, then by a straight line back to Baluchistan, passing through a point 20 miles off Ras al-Hadd, Oman. So it was really only the westernmost slice of the Indian Ocean that was affected. For what it's worth.
Joe McMillan, 17 April 2000

Regulations for British ships under the Merchant Shipping Act seem to be much the same as the Ensign Code of the French Merchant Navy.

I think that Section 454(a) of the US Code, posted by Joe on 29 - 09, must refer only to the possibility of foreign ships using American flags to pass themselves off as US ships in order to avoid customs or immigration. Taken literally it would prohibit flying the Stars and Stripes as a courtesy flag.

There were international agreements during the 19th century about the unauthorized use of flags in connection with the suppression of the slave trade. Joe posted some details of the Brussels Conference of 1889-90 (above).

The Declaration of Barcelona, 20th April 1921 recognised the right of states with no littoral to fly their own flag at sea. During the Second World War the Vatican had difficulty arranging shipping between Italy and countries with which Italy was at war. It was not a feasible route for belligerent ships of either side and not attractive for neutrals. To avoid a recurrence of the problem the Vatican took advantage of the Declaration and passed an Enabling Act so that in any future emergency it would be able to charter ships to navigate under the flag of the Vatican State. A decree issued on 15th September 1951 stated that the flag would be the State Flag, yellow/white with three crowns and crossed keys in the white panel, and that if the ship belonged to the State the flag would bear the Vatican Coat of Arms. The harbour for such ships would be Civitavecchia. FO 371/96291.

As a result of smugglers in the Mediterranean flying the British flag when not entitled to do so, a 1950 amendment to King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions stated that such vessels could be seized and taken to the nearest port with no personal liability on the part of the arresting officer. Oppenheimer's International Law; Vol 1, Peace was quoted; "Abuse of Flag. It is a universally recognised rule that men of war of every state may seize and bring to a port of their own for punishment, any foreign vessel sailing under the flag of such state without authority." ADM 1/22643.
David Prothero, 5 October 2000