IRRC No. 902

The difficulties of conflict classification at sea: Distinguishing incidents at sea from hostilities

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Incidents at sea between warships and military aircraft often involve more than provocative actions – they may be aggressive and can sometimes result in death and destruction. In view of the low threshold of a resort to armed force by one State against another that would bring an international armed conflict into existence, it is rather difficult to determine whether incidents at sea remain below that threshold. Similar, albeit less difficult problems arise with regard to forceful measures taken by States against foreign merchant vessels. Here it is important to clearly distinguish between law enforcement at sea and the exercise of belligerent rights.

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