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CONVERSION OF MERCHANT SHIPS INTO WAR SHIPS
The seventh of the Hague conventions bears the title, “ Convention relative à la Transformation des Navires de Commerce en Bâtiments de Guerre.” The convention really relates to vessels which have already been converted into war ships rather than to their conversion. The articles bearing on the subject are as follows:
ARTICLE 1. A merchant ship converted into a war ship can not have the rights and duties accruing to such vessels unless it is placed under the direct authority, immediate control, and responsibility of the power whose flag it flies.
ARTICLE 2. Merchant ships converted into war ships must bear the external marks which distinguish the war ships of their nationality.
ARTICLE 3. The commander must be in the service of the state and duly commissioned by the competent authorities. His name must figure on the list of the officers of the fighting fleet.
ARTICLE 5. Every merchant ship converted into a war ship must observe in its operations the laws and customs of war.
ARTICLE 6. A belligerent who converts a merchant ship into a war ship must, as soon as possible, announce such conversion in the list of war ships.
ARTICLE 7. The provisions of the present convention do not apply except between contracting powers, and then only if all the belligerents are parties to the convention.
These articles provide that war status will be conceded to merchant vessels only when under state authority, bearing the flag and distinguishing marks of belligerent nationality, subject to the command of a duly commissioned officer, with crew under military discipline, and observing the rules of war.
These articles take the converted merchant vessel out of the category of privateers and thus respect the first clause of the Declaration of Paris of 1856 by which“ privateering is and remains abolished.” The converted merchant vessels become a part of the navy.
This had already been provided for in the Regulations for the Naval Auxiliary Service of the United States in effect April 1, 1907. In Chapter 1, 2, of these regulations it is provided that “these vessels shall be governed by the laws of the United States, by the Navy regulations as far as they may be applicable, and by these regulations.”
This seventh convention provides for the responsible control of merchant vessels converted into war vessels. It is accepted as a general proposition that a belligerent under proper regulations will be allowed to use his resources upon the sea as well as upon the land. The fundamental objection to the use of converted merchant vessels has previously been the lack of government control and responsibility. Such control and responsibility is now secured. This convention might properly have the title, “A Convention to Secure the Observance of the Declaration of Paris in regard to Privateering.”
According to the preamble itself of the seventh convention, it does not make provision for the subject proposed in the program of the Czar, viz., “ conversion of merchant vessels into war ships.” The preamble of the convention is as follows:
Whereas it is desirable, in view of the incorporation in time of war of merchant ships in the fighting fleet, to define the conditions subject to which this operation may be effected;
Whereas, however, the contracting powers have been unable to come to an agreement on the question whether the conversion of a merchant ship into a war ship may take place upon the high seas, it is understood that the question of the place where such conversion is effected remains outside the scope of this agreement and is in no way affected by the following rules.
The more important naval powers have agreements with the steamship companies under which in time of need certain vessels may be taken into the public service.
The place of conversion is a matter of utmost importance, and this subject by specific declaration remains outside the convention.
In general, a merchant vessel might be converted into a war vessel in a home port, on the high sea, or in a neutral port, and under exceptional circumstances within the jurisdiction of the other belligerent.
To conversion in a home port, followed by prompt notification as provided for in article 6 of the convention, little objection could be raised.
In the exceptional case of conversion within an enemy's jurisdiction there might arise a question of the exercise of good faith if a merchant vessel should forthwith be converted into a war vessel after it had been allowed to take on cargo or make repairs in an enemy's port during the days of grace allowed for departure of enemy vessels at the outbreak of war. It would seem that a regulation should be adopted by which vessels allowed such a privilege should retain their merchant character, at least until converted in a home port.
The main questions arise, however, in regard to conversion on the high seas, which the convention excludes because the powers can not reach an agreement, and conversion within neutral jurisdiction, which the convention does not mention.
The discussion during the Russo-Japanese war in regard to the conversion of the Smolensk and Peterburg of the Russian volunteer fleet after they had passed the Dardanelles, closed to war vessels, and
the open sea is too recent to need review. It showed the necessity of some international understanding in order to avoid friction. There is no provision at present which prevents change of character from time to time from merchant to war ship or vice versâ, unless it be article 6 of the convention, which provides that "a belligerent who converts a merchant ship into a war ship must, as soon as possible, announce such conversion in the list of war ships.” It would seem that to render this article 6 definite there should be an additional clause to the effect that a vessel thus placed in the list of war ships should retain this status to the end of the war, as some of the delegates contended.
A neutral state has a right to demand that the status of a vessel be not changed from that of a merchant vessel to that of a war vessel in such manner as to render the preservation of neutrality unnecessarily difficult. It is evident that questions as to the ob servance of neutrality might arise if a merchant vessel should enter a neutral port and load with supplies which would render the vessel of immediate service in war and after taking on such supplies assume a war status. What a war vessel in time of war may do in a neutral port is usually strictly prescribed. It may remain only for a specified period, take on a specified amount of coal, etc. A merchant vessel has almost unlimited freedom so long at it observes ordinary port regulations. If a merchant vessel may change to a war vessel immediately after leaving the neutral port or even within the port, a neutral may unwittingly allow such a vessel to prepare within the neutral jurisdiction to prey on the neutral's own commerce. A neutral port might become practically an enemy's base. Many contingencies might arise which would emphasize the need of the provisions which the seventh convention did not cover though recognized as desirable and considered to some extent by the delegates.
This convention embodies and makes more definite the principles which have been generally followed in practice since 1870, when Germany made her propositions in regard to a voluntary naval force. It regulates somewhat more carefully the use of such vessels after they are enrolled in the public forces. Many questions arose at the Hague conference of 1907 which made impossible the formulation of generally acceptable rules on all points in regard to the conversion of merchant ships into war ships. Some of the delegates were absolutely opposed to conversion except in a home port. While some of the delegates were generally opposed to conversion on the high seas, they wished to make exceptions in favor of merchant vessels which had left national ports before the outbreak of hostilities and in favor of the conversion of merchant vessels captured from the enemy on the high sea and adapted to warlike use. Some thought that the abolition of capture of private property at sea would lead a
belligerent to change a ship from a war status to a merchant status if in danger of capture in order to bring it under the exemption. Great freedom of conversion and reconversion was favored by a few of the delegates. The need that the character of a vessel be clear to a neutral was generally maintained.
Upon the question justly regarded as the most difficult, “ the question whether the conversion of a merchant ship into a war ship may take place upon the high seas,” the contracting powers have been unable to come to an agreement. As the preamble of the seventh
“the question of the place where such conversion is effected remains outside of the scope of this agreement” and is in no way affected by its rules. Thus, it is evident that while pro vision is made for the abolition of the evils of privateering, there remains for a later conference the agreement upon such difficult questions as those of conditions under which a converted vessel may be reconverted into a war vessel and the place where conversion and reconversion may be allowed.
GEORGE GRAFTON WILSON.