Lex Rex Ph

The Paquete Habana Case Digest

175 U.S. 677 (1900) [on custom]


  • The case involved fishing vessels called the Paquete Habana and Lola, which navigated near Cuba but were seized by the U.S. government for 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.

Ruling in relation to customary international law

  • Over centuries or since time immemorial, fishing vessels were exempted from seizure is not found on any text of any convention. What the Court relied upon was custom. These were practices of States within the area – such as Great Britain, France, etc.
  • International custom – how States behave in relation to a certain conduct or question.
  • 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 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 prize of war, including their cargoes and crews.
  • The Court yielded to the argument of the owners that in the absence of text treaties, resort had been had to custom of civilized nations.
  • The Court ordered the US to reimburse the owners.

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