When US and Spain were at war in 1898, the US gunboat and steamship captured fishing vessels under the Spanish flag called the Paquete Habana and Lola. The said fishing vessels navigated near Cuba but were seized because of alleged violations of international law, specifically the laws of nations regarding the rights of neutrals during a war. They were seized as a prize of war and were sold in a public auction.
Did the US violate international law when it seized the fishing vessels of Spain as a prize of war?
Ruling and Ratio
Over centuries or since time immemorial, fishing vessels were exempted from seizure. Even though this practice is not found in any text of any convention, the Court relied on custom or international practice. These were practices of States within the area – such as Great Britain, France, etc.
The Court held that customary international law, including the rights of neutrals during war, was part of the law of the United States and that it must be followed by U.S. courts unless it conflicts with the Constitution or a federal statute.
Duration is an element of a custom and it can be short or long. It can be long if such a custom has long been practiced, or almost from time immemorial. Here, the Court affirmed that the prohibition against the capture of fishing vessels as a prize of war is a custom from time immemorial. It is a law of ancient usage among civilized nations, beginning from centuries ago, and gradually ripening into a rule of international law.
Coat fishing vessels – those that pursue their vocation of catching and bringing in fresh fish – have been recognized as exempt from capture as a prize of war, including their cargoes and crews.
The Court yielded to the argument that in the absence of text treaties, the resort had been had to custom of civilized nations. (Note: the word “civilized nations” is no longer used now because of its degrading connotation)
The Court ordered the US to reimburse the owners.