Taking a cruise holiday sounds irresistible—casinos, wild parties, stopovers in foreign lands… For all that promise of relaxation, though, there is a dark underbelly to the industry. A federal inquiry into cruise ship crime reveals that while cruises are marketed as luxurious, the industry is rife with drugs, theft, sex offences, and even murder. If you were to fall victim to such crimes, applying the law is murkier than you’d think.
Using data from the FBI, academics Ross Klein and Jill Poulston, in their article ‘Sex at Sea: Sexual Crimes Aboard Cruise Ships’, allege sexual assault and sexual victimisation occur proportionally far more often on cruise ships than on land. What most Australians don’t know is that Australian law does not apply once a cruise ship enters international waters.
The tragic death of Brisbane woman Dianne Brimble in 2002 exposed the ‘party culture’ aboard cruise ships. A 42-year-old mother of three, Brimble was given GHB (a date-rape drug) and later overdosed after being callously treated by a group of men. The case attracted public attention and concern.
Although the coroner’s inquest identified eight men of interest, no manslaughter convictions were issued. The case revealed poor self-regulation standards on cruise ships and inadequate security measures. The preservation of evidence in the case was also below acceptable standards.
Brimble’s death led to this year’s federal government inquiry, ‘Troubled Waters’. Chaired by Brisbane Labor MP Graham Perrett, the inquiry proposed mandatory reporting of all crimes on cruise ships and recommended the government vote in favour of better evidence collection at the International Maritime Organisation assembly this November.
It is estimated that 200 people have gone missing on cruises in the past decade, with half of these disappearances suspected to have involved foul play.
South Australian Commissioner for Victims’ Rights, Michael O’Connell, tabled a submission to the inquiry, and stressed the importance of mandatory reporting of crimes.
“It is unclear as to how many crimes happen at sea because there is no obligation for them to be reported to any particular authority other than the cruise companies themselves,” he says.
Perrett told Farrago his misgivings about the self-regulation of the industry.
“I’m not philosophically opposed to self-regulation. It is normally the cheapest and most efficient way to achieve the best result for customers. But the government’s role is to make sure self-regulation is working,” he says.
No police are on board when cruise ships go out to sea. Instead, companies hire private security officers who are supposed to be trained in interviewing victims. If a crewmember is implicated in an alleged crime it is not guaranteed the information will be passed on to an independent authority.
O’Connell mentions a case involving a female crewmember who was allegedly victimised by a male fellow crewmember. The cruise company fought her application for compensation for the harm that was done to her.
“The surmise is that the cruise company utilised a series of adjournments for the purpose of acquiring private investigators to dig up information about previous relationships with other men to discredit the woman and question her integrity,” he says.
“The question for me was would the cruise company take the same position if it was one of an Australian woman rather than a crewmember and if so to what extent should the federal government tolerate such proceedings?”
Klein and Poulston claim the perpetrators of crime are most often male crewmembers and the victims are female passengers. 17.5% of victims are younger than 18, and the incidents tend to occur at night in passenger cabins when parents are absent.
Often crewmembers are recruited from underdeveloped nations, which lack databases for proper background checks.
It could be said that a uniform may induce a ‘power trip’ and a sense of being above the law. Leaving terra firma can be likened to a ‘moral holiday’, in which the norms of land are replaced by the chance for catharsis—something like Las Vegas, except with a less chance of being caught by the law.
It’s important for consumers to be aware of the extent to which the Australian government can protect its citizens on ships. Enforcing the law in international waters is difficult. Technically, once a ship is in international waters, the laws that apply are those of the country in which the company is registered.
While you might be getting on a cruise in Sydney, that ship might be registered in ‘nations of convenience’ such as Panama or the Bahamas. Australian victims of crime could have their cases heard in a court with a vastly different legal system to our own. O’Connell says, “sexual harassment is illegal in Australia but whether or not it would be considered under international definitions of what is crime and what is anti-social behaviour is unclear.”
“What people don’t realise is that it’s basically a contractual relationship between the passenger and the carrier,” says Perrett.
Maritime law is infamously complex. When a ship is in Australia’s territorial waters, 12 nautical miles out to sea, then Australian law applies. Between 12 to 24 nautical miles is what is called the ‘contiguous zone’, where Australia only has certain rights like the right to patrol. Beyond 200 nautical miles is classed as ‘international waters’, and the reach of the Australian government is severely curtailed.
“Most people assume that they are taking the laws of Australia with them when they buy a ticket for a cruise that starts and ends in Australia,” explains Perrett, “But that is not the case. Once they’re out on the high seas it’s different regulations entirely.”
O’Connell concurs, “The punch line for me is that victims’ rights should know no borders. It should not matter if it is in Australian territorial waters or international waters. That is the thrust of the argument that I constructed.”
However, such problems haven’t stopped the cruise ship industry booming in Australia. Last year 70,000 Australians went on a cruise. By 2020, it is estimated that 1 million Australians will board a cruiseliner per year. At the moment the industry is worth $39 billion and rising sharply.
Perrett is optimistic about the future of cruises. “I think the industry has moved on from the dark days that saw the death of Dianne Brimble. I think it has moved on from those party ships and is much more family-orientated now,” he says.
However, O’Connell sees the party culture still persisting, with worrying levels of alcohol being served.
“The cruises are marketed often as a family holiday but the party culture still exists. Even in some parts of the industry where they have adopted a responsible alcohol policy a passenger can be served 15 standard drinks per 24 hours.”
“These ships are mini-cities with populations of over three thousand. Imagine if many of those people were intoxicated and the ship were in open waters and became stranded or had a collision that caused there to be an emergency. Think of the difficulties which will be encountered in having to deal with such a high number of intoxicated people in a small area.”
In August three major cruise companies (Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian cruise lines) agreed to post specific crime statistics online. There might be some movement towards greater transparency, but it seems there’s still a way to go to protect consumers in these floating party towns.