Maritime Law

The relevance of maritime law to land-locked countries like Ethiopia has frequently been misunderstood. Some think the Maritime Code of 1960 is no more important since Ethiopia became a country without sea ports in the early 1990s. The myth underlying this misconception is that land-locked countries could not possibly engage in maritime transaction of any sort. A highlight on some core principles of the law of the sea –a branch of public international law –is crucial to understand that it is still legally possible for landlocked states to engage in sea trade. The most serious limitation has been economic incapacity, not legal incapacity as such.

As a matter of principle of international law, every nation has freedom of the high seas (a bundle of freedoms including freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, fishing, scientific research and freedom to construct artificial islands, lay submarine cables, and pipelines). Apparently, these freedoms are not limited to coastal states. Land-locked states like ours are equally entitled to these freedoms. The question is how could land-locked states, which are not in principle precluded from the enjoyment of rights pertaining to the use of sea and sea resources, practically benefit from the universally recognized freedoms without access to outlets?

Traditionally, states without access (SWA) have endeavored to obtain the right of free access to the sea in order to practically enjoy freedom of the high seas and most importantly to participate in international trade. With this aim, many multilateral and bilateral agreements have been signed guaranteeing the right of transit of SWA through neighboring territories. There are many documents of public and private international law which guarantee access rights to landlocked states. Such documents include the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNICLOS III), of 1982 (entered into force in 1994). UNICLOS grants right of access of landlocked countries to and from the sea and the freedom of transit. Article 3 of UNCLOS, for example, provides as follows:

Article 3

1.  In order to enjoy the freedom of the seas on equal terms with coastal States, States having no seacoast should have free access to the sea. To this end States situated between the sea and a State having no seacoast shall by common agreement with the latter and in conformity with existing international conventions accord:

a.  To the state having no seacoast, on a basis of reciprocity, free transit through their territory and

b.  To ships flying the flag of that state treatment equal to that accorded to their own ships, or to the ship of any other states, as regards access to seaports and the use of such ports.

In addition, the 1965 United Nations Convention on the Transit Trade of Land-Locked Countries and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (in its Article V) and African Maritime Transport Charter of 1993, to which Ethiopia is a party, recognize the right of free access to the sea for landlocked Member States with, however, the proviso that they comply with the laws and regulations of the transit States.

Such international conventions have little effect on those nations that would have to grant the rights sought, i.e., transit right. As a result, the problem of access to sea has usually been solved through bilateral treaties between the individual nations concerned. Incidentally, it is also advisable for states without access to maintain smooth relations with neighbors over whose territory its goods must traverse.

As far as sea access to Ethiopian ships is concerned, Ethiopia has concluded Port Utilization Agreement with Djibouti and Sudan. Since road transport plays a significant role in the transit transport, Ethiopia has also concluded Road Transport Agreements with the above-mentioned neighboring states. However, currently Ethiopia mainly uses the Port of Djibouti.

Agreement on Port Utilization and the Transit of Goods towards Ethiopia, signed in April 2002, and subsequently ratified by both Ethiopian and Djiboutian parliaments, is based on the major United Nations conventions and the principles of free sea access (and transit) to the sea for landlocked countries. The agreement covers the various aspects of transit transport: port entry, customs, documentation, land transport, security along the corridor, facilities maintenance, approval procedures for public and private operators of both states that use the corridor, etc.

Djibouti International Autonomous Port (PAID) handles millions of tonnes annually, well over 50 per cent on behalf of Ethiopia. Since Djibouti does not have a merchant fleet, the PAID gives priority to berthing ships transporting goods to Ethiopia.  Since 2000, the Ethiopian customs has had an office within the port of Djibouti in order to carry out formalities for goods in transit to Ethiopia.  In addition, more favourable terms, for length of storage and rates, are granted to Ethiopians for operations in the port of Djibouti.  Ethiopian Shipping Lines, the only national flag carrier established in 1964, has had a monopoly of transport of goods coming from or going to Ethiopia. For goods in transit to Ethiopia (an average of 100,000 containers each year), over 70 per cent of handling is carried out by the Maritime Transit Services Enterprise (MTSE). As to the road transport –connecting Ethiopia’s inland to the Port of Djibouti –it is almost all undertaken by Ethiopian operators. Some 100,000 vehicles use the corridor from the port of Djibouti to Ethiopia annually since Ethiopia’s traffic moved from Eritrea to Djibouti in 1998.

The major piece of Ethiopia’s maritime legislation is the 1960 Maritime Code. With 371 articles, the code deals with many aspects of maritime affairs including contract of carriage under (1) charterparty and (2) bill of lading, maritime labour law, nationality and registration of ships, limitation of liability, marine insurance, general average, collisions, salvage and assistance, and also ship mortgage and maritime lien. The material sources of the law, according to Tsehai Wada, is “less known.” But, he remarks that the Code is substantially drawn from international conventions of maritime importance. Another writer, however, is of the opinion that the code is inspired by Continental (Civil Law) sources. In his article the Civil Law and Common Law Influences on the Developing Law of Ethiopia, J. Vanderlinden incidentally mentions the following: “The Commercial and Maritime Codes were drafted by …French Professors, Professor Escarra, and after his death, Professor Jauffret. They [the codes] are representative of the most recent developments in French commercial legal thought.” Despite divergent views, one can safely argue that the Maritime Code’s provisions bear similarity, in many instances, with the provisions of the then prominent conventions, including the Hague Rules on Bill of Lading of  1924, and hence, the later are the likely major material sources of the former.   

In sum, the unavailability of a seaport – though the most evident disadvantage for inland countries – has not completely dissuaded landlocked nations from taking to the sea. This is particularly the case with Ethiopia. Though land-locked, Ethiopia continues to own ships and engage in international maritime commerce. Hence, it is not odd for land-locked states to legislate a body of law concerning ships flying their flag and transactions involving them. Undeniably, however, there is some decline in importance of some of the provisions of our maritime legislation, particularly those provisions which assume the existence of sea port. None the less, this area of law has still a major role to play in the land-locked state owning merchant ships and handling 90 per cent of its import-export trade through sea transport.

Transportation of goods and passengers by water is one of the most ancient channels of commerce on record.This mode of transportation was and still is indispensable for international trade since ships are capable of carrying bulky goods which otherwise would not be carried. Rules governing relationships among participants of sea-transport have also been known since c.1st millennium BC.

Ancient maritime rules derived from the customs of the early Egyptians, Phoenicians and the Greeks who carried an extensive commerce in the Mediterranean Sea. The earliest maritime code is credited to the island of Rhodes which is said to have influenced Roman law. It is generally accepted that the earliest maritime laws were the Rhodian Sea Laws, which have been claimed to date from 900 B.C., but which more likely appeared in the form recognized today during the period from 500 to 300 B.C. These laws were recognized in the Mediterranean world as a method of providing predictable treatment of merchants and their vessels. The complexity and attention to detail found in the Rhodian Sea Laws demonstrated the sophistication of commerce and trade of Ancient Greece – a world of commerce, the center of which, Rhodes, was in a position to dictate terms for trade.

Although the decline of Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire did alter the influence of the Rhodian Sea Law, a uniform code based on the Rhodian Law remained and was recognized as essential to peaceful and profitable Mediterranean trade: the Mediterranean Sea was for more than one thousand years [300 B.C. to 1200 A.D.] only ruled by the Rhodian Law, although augmented with some additions by the Romans. Thus, the Digest of Justinian, dated 533 A.D., states the following regarding any controversy arising in the Mediterranean Sea: "This matter must be decided by the maritime law of the Rhodians, provided that no law of ours is opposed to it."

These laws which derived their essential elements from Rhodian customs were afterwards leveled up by Romans. There was a great enlargement of the application of the principles of the Roman law in the revival of commerce consequent upon the growth of the Italian republics and the great free cities of the Rhine and the Baltic Sea. Special tribunals were set up in the Mediterranean port towns to judge disputes arising among seafarers. This activity eventually led to the recording of individual judgments and the codification of customary rules by which courts become bound. Three noted codes of maritime law –whose principles were found in the Roman law, were formulated in Europe during the three centuries between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1300.  One, Libre del Consolat de mar of Barcellona was adopted by the cities on the Mediterranean; the second, the Laws of Oleron prevailed in France and England; and the third, Laws of Wisby governed the great free cities of the Hanseatic League on the Baltic.

The oldest of these codes was Consolato del Mare, or Regulation of the Sea, prepared at Barcelona. It was a compilation of comprehensive rules for all maritime subjects. It, for example, dealt with ownership of vessels, the duties and responsibilities of the masters or captains thereof, duties of seamen and their wages, freight, salvage, jettison, average contribution, and the like. Libre del Consolat de mar of Barcellona and the Tablets of Amalfi, one prepared at the famous of Italian seaports, enjoyed authority far beyond the ports where they were promulgated. In essence, until the rise of modern nations, maritime law did not derive its force from territorial sovereigns but represented what was already conceived to be the customary law of the sea.

Eventually, as commerce from the   Mediterranean moved northward and westward, sea codes developed in northern European ports. Among the important medieval sea codes were the Laws of Wisby (a Baltic port), the Laws of Hansa Towns (a Germanic league), and the Laws of Oleron (a French island). The Consolato del Mare was inspirational in the preparation of these later codes. In particular, the Laws of Oleron, the second great code of maritime regulation, was inspired by the Consolato del Mare. These three codes are called the three arches upon which rests modern admiralty structure.

As could be understood from the discussion above, the earliest developments relating to maritime law occurred in areas belonging to what is now known as the Continental legal tradition. These developments contributed to the early admiralty law of England –the origin of the common law legal tradition and one of the major maritime states with rich tradition in shipping. The European admiralty doctrines were carried to the USA –another important shipping nation – through the English system of admiralty law, which initially was inspired by what have been termed the three arches of modern admiralty law –the Laws of Wisby, the Laws of Hansa Towns, and the Laws of Oleron.

Contemporary maritime law is a mixture of ancient doctrines and new at laws both national and international. Among the traditional principles of admiralty still in use are marine insurance, general average and salvage. The welfare of the seaman, the ancient concept of "maintenance and cure" are also still in use today. The main reason for the continuous use of ancient principles of law is the unchanging nature of basic hazards of seafaring. Since at least the end of the 19th century, however, naval architecture and cargo handling have changed in significant ways. The extensive use of crude oil carriers as well as carriers of liquefied natural gas has, for example, posed new hazards and questions of liability for oil pollution and damage to the marine ecology and the shorelines. As a result of this, modern maritime law consists of laws that are of historic origin and of recent development. Note also that not all of the original principles of maritime law still apply.

The earliest known maritime laws were uniform. According to one historian, the great value of the rules which had been developed for maritime trade lay in the fact that they had been "found by practice to be suitable to the needs of a community which knows no national boundaries –the international community of seafarers." This historical uniformity of early maritime laws declined with the growth of nationalism. However, maritime transactions have always been international in nature which most of the time involve individuals from different jurisdictions. International shipping is “a complex business, and its activities are conducted in a manner that often implicates the interest of several countries.” The complex international aspect of the transaction, on the one hand, and the fact that maritime law is national (than international), on the other, present different problems. The difference in domestic maritime legislations may, for example, make the outcome of the “international” transaction unpredictable to participants. Moreover, jurisdictional, choice-of-law, and forum non conveniens issues would be there.

Making the rules of maritime law universally uniform, once again understood, would alleviate most of the problems related to unpredictability and conflict of laws. This understanding has led to the revival in the nineteenth century of the ancient tendency to make rules relating to maritime transaction uniform globally. This effort was first started at the instigation of lawyers and commercial men such as those who founded the Comité Maritime International (CMI) and the national maritime law associations; and continues to grow under the aegis of the Intergovernmental Maritime Organization (IMO) and other United Nations affiliated organizations with the cooperation of experts in the private sector.

Founded in 1897, the International Maritime Committee or CMI   initiated uniformity among national maritime legislations of member countries. Among the conventions drafted by CMI were the Hague Rules (International Convention on Bill of Lading), and the Visby Amendments (amending the Hague Rules), the Salvage Convention and many others. Since 1958, many of CMI’s functions have been taken by the International Maritime Organization of the UNO. This organization has also continued the move towards uniform maritime laws. Many states adhered to this rules either by incorporation of the provisions in domestic laws or by implication of treaty obligations. Thus, now, we can speak of the relative uniformity of national maritime laws of different shipping states which may not be matched by the degree of uniformity attained in some other areas of law. The degree of harmonisation so far attained is not, however, satisfactory in so far as some areas are concerned. For example, there still exists differences in assessment of maritime claims.

The history of maritime law in Ethiopia had not been clear until the enactment of the 1960 Maritime Code. Though Ethiopia‘s maritime history dates as far back as the times of Axum, a parallel development of the laws relating to maritime trade was absent. It is only since 1960’s that Ethiopia witnessed a development of a comprehensive maritime legislation coupled with the resurgence of shipping trade after the establishment of the Ethiopian Shipping Lines SC (ESLSC). The 1960 Maritime Code is still the most important piece of legislation in the area.

Gilmore and Black, in their the Law of Admiralty, define maritime law as ‘’A corpus of rules, concepts and legal practices governing certain centrally important concerns of the business of carrying goods and passengers by water’’. On the other hand, William Tetley’s Glossary of Maritime Terms describes maritime law as ‘’a complete system of law, public and private, substantive and procedural, national and international’’. The famous legal dictionary – Black’s Law Dictionary, in its part, defines maritime law as ‘’the body of law governing marine commerce and navigation, the carriage at of persons and property, and marine affairs in general; the rules governing contract, tort and workers’ compensation claims or relating to commerce on or over water’’.

The definitions given above, though comprehensive, are not necessarily inclusive of all matters dealt under this specific area of law. While Tetley’s definition emphasizes how broad maritime law can be, the two other definitions concentrate on the central aspects of the law. A rather simpler but broad definition of maritime law would be: the branch of jurisprudence that governs ships and shipping. As the law of ships, it regulates the nationality, ownership and registration of vessels. As the law of shipping, it governs the relationship between private entities which operate vessels on the oceans. In other words, it governs maritime questions such as sea carriage, contract of affreightment, marine insurance, maritime lien and the like.  It is distinguished from another etymologically identical area of law –the law of the sea. The law of the sea is a branch of public international law which aims to regulate the relationship between states in respect of those areas of the sea and seabed subject to coastal state jurisdiction and beyond. Whereas, maritime law/admiralty law is  a body of private law that govern the legal relationships arising from the transportation of passengers and cargoes on the high seas and other navigable waters. The principal parties affected by maritime law are the crew, the ship-owner, the cargo owner, the charterer and the marine insurer. Generally, maritime law could be understood as a body of domestic law governing the relationships between parties engaged in maritime commerce.

In most jurisdictions, maritime law applies to seawater only. Shipping activities in interior waterways are usually governed by a separate set of rules. There are, however, some countries that extend the scope of their maritime law to shipping activities in interior water bodies. In Scandinavian countries, for example, maritime law applies to shipping activities in all water bodies, including lakes, rivers, and canals.

The scope of application of our Maritime Code is, like in most of the shipping nations, limited to shipping activities on seawaters only. These could be inferred from the general framework of the Code, particularly the preface. In the Preface to the 1960 Maritime Code of Ethiopia, it is stated that the codification of the Code was felt imperative with the return of Ethiopia’s ancient sea coast on the Red Sea and the subsequent expansion of Ethiopia’s maritime power.

The definition given to “ships” is also of some help in determining the scope of our Maritime Code. For the purpose of this Code, provides Art. 1, “a ship is …any seagoing vessel…” This definition is not inclusive of any other watercraft used as a means of transportation in any other water body. Thus, our Maritime Code is not the pertinent legislation that governs shipping activities of non-seagoing vessels.

Legislative provisions, other than that of the Maritime Code, are also indicative of this fact. For example, Art.563 of the Commercial Code excludes carriage of goods/persons in inland waterways from the ambit of carriage by sea, which is the concern of the Maritime Code (See Art. 565 of Com. Code).

From the foregoing discussion it is clear that maritime law is a domestic private law that, in most cases, aims to regulate shipping activities on seas. Though each nation’s maritime legislations have their own distinct features, the following remarks could be made on maritime laws in general:

1. International Nature

Although regulated to a large extent by national legislation, maritime law in almost all jurisdictions is clearly shaped by international influences, in particular international conventions. This is due to the fact that shipping by its very nature involves international relations. The ocean-going vessels flying the flag of a state operate in all waters throughout the world and sail from country to country. Vessels often are supplied and repaired in foreign ports. Cargo may be damaged or lost while at sea in the course of an international voyage or in a foreign port, and likewise seamen may be injured on the high seas or in the waters of foreign countries. Such background facilitated the development of common international usage and practice since antiquity. The common universal usage and practices were subsequently adopted by national laws. Maritime law is thus a specialized domestic law that cannot avoid international influences. This may in part be the reason why judges and lawyers who deal with maritime law consider themselves as specialists with an international background.

2.  Comprehensiveness

The second important characteristic of maritime law is its breadth. Maritime law is a complete legal system, just as the civil law and the common law are complete legal systems. Maritime law, incidentally, is much older than the common law and probably contemporaneous with the advent of the civil law. That maritime law is a complete legal system can be readily seen from its component parts. As noted by William Tetley, maritime law has had its own law of contract-- of sale (of ships), of service (towage), of lease (chartering), of carriage (of goods by sea), of insurance (marine insurance being the precursor of insurance ashore), of agency (ship chandlers), of pledge (bottomry and respondentia), of hire (of masters and seamen), of compensation for sickness and personal injury (maintenance and cure) and risk distribution (general average). It is and has been a national and an international law (probably the first private international law). It also has had its own public law and public international law. Maritime law has and has had, as well, its own courts and procedures from earliest times.

As will be seen in due time, maritime law seeks to regulate personal and property relationships as well as contractual and tortuous relationships. The comprehensiveness of the law can also be seen in its administrative and few criminal provisions. In short, maritime law is a comprehensive system of law concerning maritime matters – both public and private, with the later forming the major part.

3. Special Legal Jargons

The study of maritime law usually employs the use of complex jargons which, in most cases, are alien to other areas of law. Understanding the subject matter without first knowing such shipping terms may often be difficult.  The presence of different jargons peculiar to this area of law may well be attributable to its unique development. Early maritime law –the basis of modern maritime law –is distinguishable from the development of other areas of law. Though first developed in continental Europe, the law relating to shipping was, in origin, based on customs only- “custom and usage of the sea” .(See the next section for details)

Though the forthcoming discussions reveal many of these special jergons, we may tentatively note some of them here: charter party, maritime lien, general average, and salvage.

Charter party: A charter party is a contract of lease of a ship in whole or in part for a long or short period of time or for a particular voyage (William Tetley’s Glossary of Maritime Law Terms, 2nd Ed., 2004).

Maritime lien: A secured claim against a ship (and sometimes against cargo or bunkers) in respect of services provided to the vessel or damages done by it (Glossary of Maritime Law Terms, 2nd Ed., 2004).

General average: The monetary contribution required of ship-owners and cargo owners (or their respective insurers) in respect of general average expenditures and general average sacrifices. Cargo's claim for general average contributions against the ship is secured by either a maritime lien or a statutory right in rem depending on the jurisdiction concerned (Glossary of Maritime Law Terms, 2nd Ed., 2004).

Salvage: Rendering assistance to ships at distress. Rules awarding such assistance have long been prescribed in various maritime nations.