The doctrine of Good Samaritan at Sea
The saga of our Filipino fishermen again resurfaced after a Philippine fishing boat, F/B GEM-VER, partially sank near Recto Bank midnight of June 9, which involved a Chinese vessel.
Several versions later were aired, from the initial statement of the Filipino fishermen ( along with that of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana) that the Chinese vessel rammed and partially sank the Philippine fishing boat, to the government’s attempt to downplay and sanitize the issue by calling “a simple maritime incident.”
Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol even met with the fishermen in Mindoro as the house was swarmed with policemen in full anti-riot battle gear. They were given new fishing boats, food items as well as P25,000 loan assistance. A press conference ensued with Piñol announcing an alleged “miscommunication” with fist-bump photo-ops of sad-faced fishermen.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila previously said that it was not a hit-and-run but seven to eight Filipino ships allegedly started to besiege the Chinese vessel, prompting it to hit one and sped away.
The fact remains that the Chinese vessel left the Filipino crew stranded in open sea. Hours later, thankfully, Vietnamese fishermen came to help.
Their story is aptly an application of the “Good Samaritan vessel” doctrine the obligation to render assistance at sea.
For centuries, this maritime rescue doctrine encourages seafarers to go to the aid of life and property in distress.
Good Samaritan vessels are usually the first to arrive on scene, and are often critical in saving lives.
In most cases, a person reacts to save another person as result of compassion or instinct, or both.
While seafarers will have the same compassion and instinct as other professionals, seafarers have a legislated obligation to render assistance.
This obligation comes from various legal sources, most notably international conventions from the United Nations (UN) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) says that every signatory to the convention must require the master of a ship flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost and to proceed to the rescue of persons in distress.
The exemption is when the assisting vessel, the crew or the passengers on board would be seriously endangered as a result of rendering assistance to those in distress.
The Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) says “the master of a ship at sea which is in a position to be able to provide assistance, on receiving a signal from any source that persons are in distress at sea, is bound to proceed with all speed to their assistance, if possible informing them or the search and rescue service that the ship is doing so.”
The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue 1979 (SAR) also mandates this principle “regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found.”
The Salvage Convention of 1989, although primarily directed at addressing the salvage of property and the prevention of marine pollution, nonetheless repeats the SOLAS obligation on the master to render assistance to any person in danger of being lost at sea.
The duty to render assistance is a general reflection of customary international maritime law.
States, both signatories and non-signatories to the conventions, are duty bound to ensure those in distress at sea are rendered assistance on a non-discriminatory basis. Whether vessels sailing under their flag operate in either a private or public capacity, the requirements incumbent upon the masters of the vessels are the same.
In other jurisdiction, failure to do so has legal sanctions of fines and imprisonment.
Our very own Revised Penal Code (Article 275) imposes the penalty of arresto mayor (1 month and 1 day to 6 months) upon (a) any one who shall fail to render assistance to any person whom he shall find in an uninhabited place wounded or in danger of dying, when he can render such assistance without detriment to himself, unless such omission shall constitute a more serious offense and (b) anyone who shall fail to help or render assistance to another whom he has accidentally wounded or injured.
The fishermen claimed that foreign vessels have been fishing in Recto Bank since 2014. Recto Bank is 85 nautical miles from Palawan and is within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In 2016, the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague had awarded the Philippines sovereign rights over Recto (Reed) Bank as well as Panganiban (Mischief) Reef off Palawan and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
Atty. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786)
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