The Paquete Habana
175 U.S. 677 (1900)

  • During the Spanish American War, the US Navy boarded two private fishing vessels flying the Spanish flag, and captured them as prizes of war.
    • One of the vessels was named The Paquete Habana.
  • The owners of the vessels sued in US courts to regain their property.
    • They argued that customary international law said that fishing vessels were exempt from being captured in war.
      • They were commercial fishermen, they were not a military target.
  • The US Supreme Court found that the fishing vessels could not be taken as prizes of war.
    • The US Supreme Court found that there was no specific US law defining a prize of war.
    • However, the Court found that customary international law exempted fishing vessels from being taken as prizes of war.
    • There are a number of factors that determine if something is customary international law. In this case, the Court found that:
      • There was State practice by a number of different countries that commercial fishing vessels were exempt.
      • There was repetition of the practice over time.
      • There was opinio juris that commercial fishing vessels were exempt.
        • Opinio juris is a subjective element that is used to judge whether the practice of a state is due to a belief that it is legally obliged to do a particular act.
  • This case lays out the important factors that courts use to determine if something has become customary international law.
    • Customary international law can be thought of as a kind of international common law. It is something that's not explicitly defined anywhere, but everyone just agrees to it.