Law  

Examining contemporary issues on international maritime law

Justice Walter Onnoghen

The 15th International Maritime Seminar for judges has concluded in Abuja with participants focusing on the applicability of international treaties on Nigerian maritime law.

In view of the critical role played by treaties in international life, participants were of the view that states should domesticate their freely assumed obligations, which are considered basic in relationships between and among states and subjects of international law.

The three-day conference attracted participation from within and outside Nigeria. There were judges and States Attorneys-General, senior government functionaries, maritime operators and scholars.

Organized by the Nigerian Shippers’ Council in collaboration with National Judicial Institute (NJI), the seminar aimed at keeping judges abreast with the basic contemporary knowledge about admiralty law and practice in the administration of justice.

The seminar equally provided platform for exchange of ideas and experiences, especially with regards to implementation of international treaties, piracy and armed robbery at sea as well as other legal issues arising from the maritime sector of the economy.

Former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Lagos, Professor Akin Oyebode, while addressing participants, held that although, international law prescribes the obligation to implement treaties, yet, in a federal system of government, implementation is often encumbered by problems arising from division of powers between the federal and constituent units.

He also referred to Section 12 of the 1999 Constitution, which stipulates that no treaty between the federation and any other country shall have the force of law except to the extent to which the National Assembly has enacted such treaty into law.

“However, it is worthy of note that not every treaty concluded by Nigeria warrants implementation by way of enabling legislation.

“Only those which one way or another, affect existing legislation require implementation by way of legislative action.

“Accordingly, treaties which impose financial, political and social costs, or which are strictly of a scientific or technological nature require legislation for their implementation while mutual exchange or cultural agreements generally do not necessarily have to be implemented through legislation”, Oyebode stated.

In his reaction, the Director General, Ghana Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Kofi Mbiah, wondered whether the constitution is inferior to international law since it cannot be used as justification for flouting international law.

He goes on to state that the supremacy of international law in the international field does not entail that judges in the municipal courts of the state must override local law and apply international law.

According to him, a very important aspect of the adherence to international law principles is the duty, not only to accept the instruments but also, to implement its tenets.

Speaking on the judicial interpretation and economic implication of piracy and armed robbery at sea, the Executive Director, Centre for Maritime Law and Security in Africa, Dr. Kamal-Deen Ali, regretted that in view of the fact that piracy has been a subject of international attention for a long period, legal framework and judicial interpretation of the crime was yet to be fully defined.

He noted that in both local and international law, the legal evolution of piracy law has been marked by difficult questions of definition, interpretation as well as practical application of the law to facts.

With the increasing activities of pirates, the Executive Director warned that legal interest in piracy can only be expected to be high.

“Also, with the global shipping and the contingent maritime, economic and national concerns, interest in the legal framework of piracy and armed robbery will remain high on global agenda”, he added.

He described piracy as that which shares class only with few other crimes including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

He also frowned that even though piracy has long been regarded as a crime that is subject to universal jurisdiction, there were some practical and legal challenges that have militated against smooth prosecution and incarceration of pirates.

“By no means do all states have adequate and up to date domestic laws to criminalize piracy. Also, the costs of prosecuting and incarceration have proved strong disincentives to action.

Earlier while declaring the seminar opened, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen tasked judges to continuously acquire trainings in maritime law to enable them handle technical legal matters that may spring from the operations in the industry.

Justice Onnoghen, who stressed the crucial role of the maritime sector to the nation’s economy, however believed that Nigerian judiciary has not failed in playing the constitutional role in the growth of maritime industry.

Yet, “the economic development of the country through efficient judicial interpretation and resolution of disputes emanating from the sector is indispensable,” he said.

He added that necessary skills in the administration of admiralty law and practice in the justice system was imperative as adjudication on such subject can only be performed optimally when judges are up to date with emerging trends in jurisprudence pertaining to that specialized area of law.

“The several respectable international conventions and treaties on the subject make the sector always evolving. Discussions on applicability of international treaties to Nigerian law will broaden the knowledge base of participants as they share experiences”

Justice Onnoghen added that domestication of some principles of international admiralty laws into Nigerian Legal framework was significant towards ground-breaking legal practice in the sector.

“Similarly, discussion on draft convention on recognition of foreign judicial sales of ships was necessary to effectively secure maritime claims and enforce foreign judgments and arbitration awards or other enforceable documents against ship owners.”

Again, the CJN canvassed efficient engagement of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms, stressing that conciliation and mediation process had proven to engender expeditious resolution of maritime cases.

Also speaking, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), stated that the seminar was in line with the efforts of the National Judicial Council to encourage training of judges in specialized fields such as maritime law.

In view of the fundamental role of the maritime sector in facilitating conduct of global trade and commerce, the minister harped on the need for requisite human capacity to enable the country take advantage of opportunities in the sector.

“If our judges lack the requisite training and competence to adjudicate in maritime disputes in a fair and effective manner, it will, without doubt, lead to a loss of confidence in the Nigerian business environment.

“In the light of our reliance on the oil and gas industry as well as the increasing focus on non-oil exports, which are all activities that require a safe and predictable maritime landscape, all agencies and institutions charged with the diverse facets of the responsibility for maintaining the sanctity of our national maritime space, must play their roles diligently to ensure national survival”, he stated.

Listing the challenges posed by piracy, illegal oil bunkering and smuggling of goods through maritime channels, the minister called for synergy between the regulatory and security agencies as well as the judiciary.

In his remarks, Minister of Transport, Chibuike Amaechi, decried non-inclusion of admiralty law in school curriculum. This, he said, was responsible for slow dispensation of admiralty law as justices and judges lacked adequate knowledge to guide in the disposition of such cases.

“This, coupled with the fast pace of development in international trade law, exert a lot of strain on our judicial officers who only come into contact for the first time with admiralty law in the courtroom, when such matters are brought before them for adjudication”, he noted.

To address the situation, the minister stated that several efforts have been made, including setting up of a ministerial committee to introduce basic admiralty law into university curriculum.

Chairman, governing board of the Council, Mai Mala Buni, stated that as one of the highest revenue generation sectors, maritime industry deserve adequate attention for better results.

He also urged maritime lawyers and judges to always avail themselves of such opportunities for enhanced knowledge of the sector.

“The maritime business as we all know is international in nature, I therefore urge our maritime experts to regularly participate in international seminars in order to widen their knowledge and be better positioned to handle issues relating to the development of the sector”, he said.

There were also Chief justices and judges from West African sub-region at the seminar.

Among them are, Chief Judge, High Court of The Gambia, Justice Hassan Jallow, Justice of the Supreme Court of Sierra Leone, Justice Abdulahmid Cham as well as the Justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana, Justice Nasiru Sule Nana Gbadegbe.

Justice Jallow who led a three-man delegation of his country, commended the efforts of Nigerian Shipper’s Council in fostering greater participation in the seminar.

He noted that the forum has served for better understanding of maritime law, stressing that both countries shared a lot of similarity in maritime jurisprudence.

The Chief Judge also commended the CJN for deploying additional three judges to the country, and expressed hope that the cooperation between Nigeria and The Gambia will continue to flourish.

For Justice Cham and his country’s delegation, the annual seminar has over the years, helped in improving their understanding of maritime law, which was instrumental to the adjudication of some cases.

He also decried the fact that maritime law was not taught in most universities across the sub-region.

According to him, there was need for capacity building in maritime law for judges, and “the seminar was going to provide that”, he stated.

Justice Gbadegbe in his goodwill message equally admitted that in view of the crucial position of maritime to the economy of individual countries, there was need for experience sharing on the subject matter.

“The seminar has been of immense value for sharing experiences with judges on the ways they handle maritime case,” he noted.

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