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NEUTRAL RIGHTS AT SEA .
Documents on the Naval Warfare
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY
WILLIAM R. SHEPHERD
to trade with other neutrals, and even with belligerents, in noncontraband articles is a fundamental principle of the freedom of the seas which cannot, and should not, be bought off with money.
Great Britain has an enormous number of merchantmen available to bring it all the supplies it needs. Germany has no desire to sacrifice its “supermarine” fleet by a conflict with the far more powerful British navy. Accordingly it uses its submarines to destroy, not only belligerent warships, but belligerent merchantmen, and even neutral vessels of the latter sort if they are known to carry contraband.
On behalf of this new mode of warfare it is asserted that, because of the special nature of the submarines, they cannot observe the rules of international law which apply solely to the kind of warships in existence at the time such rules were formulated. If belligerent merchantmen, consequently, were unarmed, and were they neither to hoist neutral flags, nor to attempt escape, nor to resist visit and search, nor to summon aid by wireless, those rules could be heeded, so far at least as the safety of human life is concerned.
Compliance with these conditions, however, might be more than human nature under the circumstances would be disposed to yield. Nor would it meet the clear regulation of international law which provides for an assurance of the safety of the passengers and crew of a merchantman before the vessel is destroyed. This too is a fundamental principle of the freedom of the seas which cannot, and should not be, satisfied by expressions of regret for its non-observance. Just to what extent the undoubted right of neutrals to travel on a belligerent merchantman, having contraband on board, confers the privilege also of involving their government in grave complications on their account, is a question no easier to answer than the one that concerns the extent to which such a government is bound to protect the property of its citizens in areas controlled by belligerents.
The force of circumstances in general and the plea of military necessity in particular, at all events, appear to make it imperative that Great Britain should prohibit neutrals to trade with Germany, denying them the plain right to do so and even depriving them of their property through the losses incident to seizure and detention. Similar reasons appear to make it equally imperative that Germany should prohibit trade with Great Britain in vessels belonging to that country or its allies, or in neutral ships if they carry contraband, even at the risk to human life arising from the destruction of the vessels affected.
Under the tremendous pressure of contending interests in which the very existence of the warring nations may hang in the balance, each of the two great belligerents has accused the other of committing illegal and inhuman acts, and each has adopted measures of reprisal accordingly. In the belief that it is invoking the supreme law of self-preservation, each has felt itself compelled to set aside an international law that aims to uphold the rights of neutrals as equal, if not superior, to the claims of belligerents.
Two vital interests, those of Great Britain and Germany, are in deadly conflict and they threaten to draw a third one, that of the United States as the representative of neutral nations, into their toils. In all fairness it is quite as absurd to suppose that Great Britain is deliberately violating the rights of neutrals for the mere sake of doing so, as it is to assume that Germany is wilfully destroying the lives of non-combatants for the sheer pleasure of it. The serious
difficulty that confronts our own country is the extent to which it can treat the actions of one belligerent with due regard to the actions of the other.
Yet whatever the situation of the powers at war, neutrals ought not to be sacrificed for the benefit of belligerents. If the disputants choose to settle their differences by fighting, that is no reason why the outsider should be forced to suffer for their misdeeds or mistakes or misfortunes. If it be pleaded that belligerents have as much title to consideration as neutrals, the answer is that the whole trend of international agreement in modern times has been moving toward an effective recognition of the rights of nations that remain at peace over against the claims of nations that see fit to war.
Mindful of these truths the United States, early in the course of the struggle, proposed to the belligerents that they adopt the Declaration of London as a temporary code of naval warfare (No. 1). This suggestion it withdrew on learning that Great Britain insisted upon modifications of that code which were quite at variance with it (No. 4). Then, after Great Britain had declared the North Sea a military area, for the purpose of shutting out direct commerce with Germany (No. 8), and Germany had retaliated by declaring the waters around Great Britain a war zone, with a similar object in view (No. 14), the United States proposed the adoption of certain mutual concessions which would soften the rigors of warfare and uphold the rights of neutrals (No. 26). This proposal Germany accepted in substance (No. 27) and Great Britain answered, not only by rejection (No. 32), but by virtually prohibiting neutral trade with Germany altogether (Nos. 28 and 34). The protest of the United States against such a prohibition (No. 36) remained unheeded for nearly four months (No. 61). Finally, in the notes following the German attacks on the Gulflight, the Cushing and the Lusitania (Nos. 46, 50, 51, 53, 56 and 60), wherein the United States protests against the loss of innocent lives, the idea of mutual concession appears once more with this country as its sponsor. Whether it will find favor at the hands of both belligerents is yet to be determined.
Reading these documents in their wider relationship to the European struggle, another fact is evident — the fact that never has the United States been afforded so wondrous an opportunity to champion the rights of neutral nations. To this end, if individual protests continue unavailing, it should arrange for the meeting under its auspices of a congress of such nations, to draw up a statement of the principles that justice demands should be observed by the at war. Wisely framed, that statement might utter a word of moral power that would resound above the roar of cannon and musketry. The congress, also, if its work did not indeed hasten the end of the war, could contribute in no small degree to the eventual triumph of neutral rights over belligerent claims, and thus put a milestone on the pathway of progress toward universal peace.