Operational Maritime Law

At first glance international law provides a well-defined framework for military action. However, it is all too evident from day-to-day practice in any operation that application is a nontrivial task. It is rather the key challenge, governed by each particular situation as well as individual legal interpretations.

Experience shows that legal views and opinions are not necessarily shared amongst the experts and nations. On the contrary, differing legal positions constitute not only an eternal and natural phenomenon, but also a potential for controversial discussions in the international community, including within NATO member states.

With regard to maritime operations, a broad variety of legal spheres, norms, and systems as well as different jurisdictions must be taken into account. Theserange, for instance, from the law of the high seas over particular maritime legal conventions/ regimes up to the national legislation of a coastal state, or from the law of armed conflict to specific international as well as national legal obligations for military forces.

The closer a theatre of operations is situated towards a coast, the more complex the operational environment, including the legal issues, will be. Not just in crisis and conflict but also in peacetime during routine operations, a wide range of legal questions may spontaneously arise during the planning and execution of a mission which could significantly impact its achievement. Very obviously, the awareness of existing legal regulations, boundaries, as well as vacuums is paramount for a successful conduct of maritime operations.

In this context, the COE CSW aims to establish a network of legal experts from military, academic, and civil organizations across the globe in order to offer high quality advice and practical legal solutions to the Alliance, to NATO member states and partner nations, as well as each individual member of the community.

Our activity on Operational Maritime Law is focussed on the tactical and operational levels. Generally, it covers legal aspects arising in the geography of Confined and Shallow Waters where the overwhelming majority of relevant legal challenges to maritime operations occur. However, our scope – like the international law – is not limited to a regional sphere; instead we are following a universal approach, both with regards to the global perspective as well as the goal of achieving a common understanding.

Consequently our main objective is the definintion of broadly consented legal positions that states and international organizations may use as a basis for their policy and handbooks as well as for the planning and conduct of operations or for educational purposes.

Therefore the major outcomes – facilitated through conferences, workshops and commission sessions – are well-founded legal proposals on mission related issues. None of which pose obligations to any governmental or military actors nor do they establish international law by themselves. However, if states and international organizations take up these findings, our activity could contribute to, at a minimum, the clarification and refining of law, up to the creation of international maritime law in the long-term.

The Operational Maritime Law Podcast


  • 2013 – 14-17 May, Northwood, GBR
  • 2014 – 19-23 May, Rome, ITA
  • 2015 – 21-24 September, Lisbon, PRT
  • 2016 – 03-06 October, Turku, FIN
  • 2017 - 25-29 September, Vienna, AUT
  • 2018 - 24-28 September, Copenhagen, DNK
  • 2019 - 23-26 September, Madrid, ESP
  • 2022 - 10-13 October, Vilnius, LTU
  • 2013 – 09-11 October, Istanbul, TUR (MSA Review Workshop)
  • 2015 – 06-10 April, Annapolis, USA (Search and Rescue)
  • 2015 – 05-08 May, Willemstad/Curacao, NLD (Countering Illicit Activities at Sea)
  • 2016 – 01-03 March, San Francisco, USA (Human Rights/ Migration)
  • 2017 - 17-19 October, Reykjavik, ISL (Genuine Link)
  • 2018 - 18-21 June, Rome, ITA (UMS)
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