A group of young women take a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean, a trip they’ve been planning for months. The second night on board, they have a couple of drinks in one of the ship’s many lounges and bars. The bartender is attractive and flirty.
Later that night, he rapes one of the women in her cabin—something he’s done before because he always gets away with it. He knows full well that cruise companies generally do whatever it takes to cover up shipboard crimes. By the time his victim gets to port, it’s too late to get any real evidence, plus the maid steam-cleaned the DNA off the cabin carpet.
Over 10 million people take cruises from U.S. ports each year, but we don’t often hear news stories about crimes committed on board. According to legal experts, though, crime is far more commonplace on cruise ships than in hotels or resorts. If so, where is the media coverage? What happens to the perpetrators? Do cruise ships have jails? And which country’s laws are invoked?
Passenger Rights, Or a Lack Thereof
American passengers on a cruise tend to believe that all of the rights and protections they enjoy on U.S. soil go with them on a cruise, but that’s actually not the case. Rights and laws on board depend on the country where the ship is at port, or, if at sea, maritime law. Maritime law is notoriously lax—the captain, who is under tremendous pressure to keep reports of crime on his ship to a minimum, has authority at sea. Furthermore, virtually all cruise ships sail under the flags of other countries that may be careless about investigation. Though the law states that the FBI must be informed of any serious crime against an American at sea, few actually are. Cruise lines have a lot to lose when crimes on board are reported.
Cruise ships themselves do not sail with law enforcement on board except for their own, private security guards—approximately five per 1,000 passengers—who are loyal to the cruise lines who employ them. Travel lawyers and security experts have testified that cruise lines prefer to handle onboard crimes internally with the line’s own lawyers working to limit or squelch liability. Crimes that are reported are rarely prosecuted for lack of evidence or witnesses—one report says the prosecution rate is only 7%. An organization called International Cruise Victims has worked to bring awareness to the problem, even claiming that many “disappearances” at sea are actually crimes that are never solved because cruise lines are so adept at cover ups.
So, What’s Really Going On?
Cruise line representatives argue that cruises are up to 30 times safer than in most American communities, which is why so little crime is reported. According to security and sexual harassment experts, though, crime is rampant on cruises because there is little or no criminal accountability on board.
The most common crime committed on cruises is reported to be sexual assault by male crew members, followed by theft. Victims of these crimes have been intimidated or met with apathy on the part of cruise line officials, who view every incident as a possible lawsuit. Though all ships have a “brig,” which is nothing more than a secure room, those most likely to be held within it are drunk and disorderly passengers. Criminal crewmembers are more often quietly put ashore, some of whom go on to work for other lines.
The New Laws
In response to the problem, President Obama signed a bill into law that addresses some of the gaping holes in ship safety practices. The Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act of 2010 includes new rules about higher guardrails, surveillance systems, greater accountability and record-keeping requirements, rape kits and trained forensic sexual assault investigators on all cruises, information on all shipboard crimes through a website, information on jurisdictional authority for all passengers, and extensive crew training on crime prevention, reporting, and evidence preservation. Vessels found in violation of these requirements can be banned from entering the U.S.
Though the cruise industry fought the senate hearings that led to the the bill, they pay lip service to supporting it now that it has been passed. Hopefully, when the bill takes full effect in 2012, shipboard crime will greatly decrease. Until then, if you’re cruising, be vigilant. And remember, the majority of cruise passengers are not crime victims. So, after you lock up your valuables, try to have fun.