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The Case of the S.S. Lotus (France v. Turkey)

    Brief Fact Summary. Turkey’s (D) assertion of jurisdiction over a French citizen who had been the first officer of a ship that collided with a Turkish ship on the high seas was challenged by France (P) as a violation of international law.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A rule of international law, which prohibits a state from exercising criminal jurisdiction over a foreign national who commits acts outside of the state’s national jurisdiction, does not exist.

    Facts. A collision occurred shortly before midnight on the 2nd of August 1926 between the French (P) mail steamer Lotus and the Turkish (D) collier Boz-Kourt. The French mail steamer was captained by a French citizen by the name Demons while the Turkish collier Boz-Kourt was captained by Hassan Bey. The Turks lost eight men after their ship cut into two and sank as a result of the collision.

    Although the Lotus did all it could do within its power to help the ship wrecked persons, it continued on its course to Constantinople, where it arrived on August 3. On the 5th of August, Lieutenant Demons was asked by the Turkish (D) authority to go ashore to give evidence. After Demons was examined, he was placed under arrest without informing the French (P) Consul-General and Hassan Bey. Demons were convicted by the Turkish (D) courts for negligence conduct in allowing the accident to occur.
    This basis was contended by Demons on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction over him. With this, both countries agreed to submit to the Permanent Court of International Justice, the question of whether the exercise of Turkish (D) criminal jurisdiction over Demons for an incident that occurred on the high seas contravened international law.

    Issue. Issue: Does a rule of international law which prohibits a state from exercising criminal jurisdiction over a foreign national who commits acts outside of the state’s national jurisdiction exist?

    Held. (Per curiam) No. A rule of international law, which prohibits a state from exercising criminal jurisdiction over a foreign national who commits acts outside of the state’s national jurisdiction, does not exist. Failing the existence of a permissive rule to the contrary is the first and foremost restriction imposed by international law on a state and it may not exercise its power in any form in the territory of another state.

    This does not imply that international law prohibits a state from exercising jurisdiction in its own territory, in respect of any case that relates to acts that have taken place abroad which it cannot rely on some permissive rule of international law. In this situation, it is impossible to hold that there is a rule of international law that prohibits Turkey (D) from prosecuting Demons because he was aboard a French ship. This stems from the fact that the effects of the alleged offense occurred on a Turkish vessel.
    Hence, both states here may exercise concurrent jurisdiction over this matter because there is no rule of international law in regards to collision cases to the effect that criminal proceedings are exclusively within the jurisdiction of the state whose flag is flown.

    Discussion. In 1975, France enacted a law regarding its criminal jurisdiction over aliens because of this the situation surrounding this case. The law stipulates that aliens who commit a crime outside the territory of the Republic may be prosecuted and judged pursuant to French law, when the victim is of French nationality. This is contained in 102 Journal Du Droit International 962 (Clunet 1975). Several eminent scholars have criticized the holding in this case for seeming to imply that international law permits all that it does not forbid.


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