Aimed at safeguarding human life at sea and at effectively and coordinately carrying out search and rescue (SAR) operations, the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue provides for the establishment of Search and Rescue Regions (SRRs).
The analysis of the Convention reveals the special nature of search and rescue, epitomised by the distinction made between SRRs and traditional maritime boundaries and by keeping its activities separate from sovereign functions. This approach is corroborated by international courts, which have not regarded SAR activities claimed by some states in deciding several territorial and boundary disputes.
The Parties to the Convention shall establish sufficient SRRs and their delimitation shall be defined according to the criteria outlined in the Annex to the Convention and should follow the guidelines provided in the IAMSAR Manual. If the establishment of SRRs bounds State Parties to provide such services within their limits and determines who is responsible for coordinating SAR operations, the notification to IMO and the subsequent publication in the IMO Global SAR Plan make these information public, helping identify SRRs and SAR services on a global scale.
Furthermore, it is demonstrated that cooperation among states may be a key driver to strengthen their relations, foster search and rescue capabilities and assure effective and reliable SAR organisations. At the same time, it may be appropriate to pursue a progressive harmonisation of maritime and aeronautical SAR regions and services, including the alignment of their relevant documents (i.e. the IMO Global SAR Plan and the ICAO RANPs).
A critical examination of two regional situations reveals that cooperation is also crucial to solve various SAR issues.
In the case of the Arctic region, the prominent problems concern the coverage of a vast maritime area and the consolidation of cooperation and coordination. The growing pressure on the region has encouraged the dialogue among the Arctic states and their acknowledgement of the peculiar nature of search and rescue activities. It also drove the Arctic states to reach in 2011 an Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic, in which it was established revised SRRs, mutual assistance, joint exercises and trainings and review processes. If fully implemented, this agreement could provide effective SAR services in the Arctic and encourage the development of a shared SAR expertise.
In the Mediterranean region the main problems are related to the overlapping of some SRRs, the lack of SAR services in the waters adjacent North African coast and the handling of the migrants rescued at sea. Although a dialogue at political level has begun, and likewise a technical discussion of some SAR issues has started within the Mediterranean Coast Guard Forum, other solutions may be advisable to foster current efforts: the establishment of an EU enhanced cooperation for the distribution of migrants among its member states and the enforcement of the Euro-Mediterranean cooperation, so as to allow the development of the socio-economic conditions of the African states, hence giving the possibility to develop their SAR capabilities. Eventually, a renewed cooperative approach toward SAR could contribute to solve the existing overlapping situations and broaden the assistance to persons in distress in the Mediterranean Sea.