International Waters, Local Disputes: The Galaxy Leader Incident and the Challenge of Maritime Law Features
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International Waters, Local Disputes: The Galaxy Leader Incident and the Challenge of Maritime Law

Yemen’s Houthi rebels seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship in the Red Sea on Sunday, taking 25 crew members hostage. The rebels claimed the hijacking was in response to the ship’s connection to Israel, and declared an intention to target ships linked to or owned by Israelis in international waters until the end of Israel’s campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers, stating that such vessels will be considered “legitimate targets,” the AP reported. This incident has sparked a flurry of claims and counterclaims from various nations, highlighting the complexity of the geopolitical landscape in the region as violence continues to rage between Israeli and Hamas forces. In this explainer, JURIST explores the accusations and denials from global leaders that followed the incident, what international law says on the matter, and what this all reveals about the complex web of global alliances that serve as the backdrop to ongoing regional tensions.

What Do We Know About the Vessel Itself?

According to TankerTracker, a company that tracks large cargo tankers in real time, the ship flys a Bahamian flag is insured in the UK, owned in the UK, managed by a Greek company and chartered by the Japanese company NYK. TankerTracker also stated that the ship was leaving the port of Korfez, Turkey and traveling to Pipavav, India at the time of seizure. It is difficult to confirm or deny whether the ship has any association with Israel due to it’s multi-national connections; however, some reports have claimed the ship is associated with Ray Shipping Ltd. which is based in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Israel’s Perspective:

A statement issued Sunday by the Israeli Defense Forces asserted that the seized vessel had no connection to Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office stated that the ship was owned by a British company and operated by a Japanese company. Netanyahu’s office accused Iran of backing the seizure, describing the incident as “a leap forward in Iran’s aggression against the citizens of the free world, with international consequences regarding the security of the global shipping lanes.”

The Houthis and Their Response

The Houthis are a Zaydi Shiite movement that has been engaged in conflict with Yemen’s Sunni-majority government since 2004, according to a Wilson Center backgrounder. The Houthis gained control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, in September 2014, extending their dominance across northern Yemen by 2016. Yahya Sare’e, the official spokesperson for the Houthi paramilitary, disputed the Israeli government’s claims that the ship was not Israeli, stating:

The Yemeni Naval Forces managed to capture an Israeli ship in the depths of the Red Sea taking it to the Yemeni coast…The Yemeni armed forces reiterate their warning to all ships belonging to or dealing with the Israeli enemy that they will become a legitimate target for armed forces. The Yemeni armed forces urges all countries whose citizens work in the Red Sea to avoid any work or activity involving Israeli ships or ships owned by Israelis. Yemeni armed forces confirm that they will continue to carry out military operations against the Israeli enemy until the aggression against Gaza stops and the heinous acts against our Palestinian brothers in Gaza and the West Bank stop.

What About Iran?

Yemeni officials and Sunni states have consistently asserted that Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, supplied the Houthis with arms, training, and financial backing. Despite these allegations, Iranian and Hezbollah officials have either denied or downplayed the claims. The United States, working in collaboration with Saudi Arabia, has presented tangible evidence of Iranian arms transfers to the Houthi group, according to the Wilson Center.

Iran has denied all involvement in the seizure. According to news coverage by Al Jazeera, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Monday:

These accusations are void and are due to the terrible situation that the Zionist regime is dealing with. We have repeatedly announced that resistance groups in the region are representatives of their nations and they make decisions based on their own interests. 

And What’s Japan’s Role?

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa told reporters Monday that the country is attempting to conduct talks with the Houthi paramilitary to ensure the release of the ship, which is chartered by Japanese company NYK. In a statement NYK confirmed the seizure and the company’s association with the ship, claiming the ship was owned by the British-based Galaxy Maritime Ltd. and had no cargo at the time of seizure, with a crew of 25 on board. 

What Does International Law Say About All of This?

In situations where a non-state actor, such as a paramilitary group, seizes a ship in international waters, the applicability of international laws becomes more complex, especially when the non-state actor is not a signatory to international law treaties and conventions. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is a primary legal framework governing maritime activities. Section 3, Article 17 of UNCLOS states in relevant part: “Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.” The convention goes on to clarify that, “Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.”

But the effectiveness of UNCLOS depends on the adherence of the parties involved. While the Houthi paramilitary is not a signatory to UNCLOS, Japan, Greece, the Bahamas, and Iran, are all signatories to the Convention, though they have not ratified it. While Yemen is also a signatory, international maritime law is largely aimed at state actors, so it is unclear if UNCLOS would apply to the actions of the Houthi paramilitary despite their quasi governmental status in parts of Yemen.

The UN Security Council may play a crucial role in addressing such incidents. Under its Chapter VII powers, the Security Council has the authority to maintain or restore international peace and security. In cases of piracy or threats to maritime security, the Security Council can issue resolutions authorizing member states to take action. These resolutions may include mandates for naval patrols, interdictions, and use of force against the non-state actors involved in the seizure. That said, the geopolitical issues referenced above could stymy this option. Each permanent member of the UN Security Council has veto powers, and given that the permanent members include China, France, the US, the UK, and Russia, the likelihood of agreement is at an all-time low.

While a non-state actor may not be a signatory to international treaties, customary international law principles may still apply. Customary international law represents legal norms and practices accepted by states, and certain fundamental principles, such as prohibitions on acts of violence and the taking of hostages, are considered binding on all actors, regardless of their formal treaty commitments. However, the enforcement of customary international law against non-state actors often relies on the cooperation of states and the international community to bring the perpetrators to justice through national or international legal mechanisms, again raising the issue of rising geopolitical tensions above.

In summary, the legal response to incidents involving non-state actors seizing ships in international waters requires a multifaceted approach, involving the potential intervention of the UN Security Council, the application of customary international law, and the cooperation of states to ensure that appropriate measures are taken against the perpetrators.

Maritime Security Concerns

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has raised concerns about overall maritime security in the Red Sea for sometime, launching the Red Sea Project in 2021 to assist Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen with strengthening their territorial maritime laws and enforcing existing laws. The International Maritime Construct (IMSC) has also raised concerns about security in the Red Sea, releasing a statement days before the seizure warning ships to avoid navigating to close to Yemeni maritime borders. 


The seizure of the Galaxy Leader underscores the intricate geopolitical dynamics in the region, involving Iran, Israel, the Houthi paramilitary, and various international actors. As efforts are made to secure the release of the vessel, the incident highlights broader concerns about maritime security and the application of international maritime law in complex situations.