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Maritime Piracy - The Legal Perspective

written by: domanconsulting • edited by: Lamar Stonecypher • updated: 1/31/2009

Maritime Piracy remains a major threat to commercial maritime activities and places a burden upon international resources. The international response to modern day piracy has refined international laws to reduce the incidence and impact of piracy upon the seas.

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    Introduction

    Piracy has long been considered by many to be a dead crime, cast into history and only exhibited by Hollywood with the practitioners portrayed as roguish scoundrels with a sense of humour and an excess of daring-do. However it has recently become obvious that there are still pirates on the High Seas and that their sense of humour, if such exists, is kept very well hidden as they seek to commit sea bound robbery on a ship, its contents and its inhabitants. The recent case of the MV Sirius Star, hijacked off the coast of Kenya by Somali pirates, has brought home to Western audiences that modern maritime piracy is very much a problem for the shipping lines and governments of the world.

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    The Legal Perspective

    Pirates exploit the fact that there is greater difficulty tracking and preventing crime on the open seas than there is on dry land, and they target ships whose cargo they know to be of high value. In the case of the Sirius Star, the cargo was crude oil with a value of at least US$100,000,000 – almost as expensive again as the ship itself, which was worth $150,000,000. In such circumstances they feel confident in demanding a large ransom, as their attitude seems to be that if a company can afford to transport cargo worth nine figures, it can afford to spend some money on a ransom for its workers.

    To Talk or Not to Talk - The Dilemma

    The attitude of governments towards piracy is much the same as their attitude towards terrorism – indeed the anti-piracy measures taken by many organisations mirror their counter-terrorism strategy in large part. The idea of negotiating with such individuals – at least on the surface – is viewed as an encouragement to further incidences of piracy and therefore is not openly endorsed by any government.

    Piracy is an interesting crime as its impact on law worldwide has been quite profound. It is widely held to be the earliest example of a crime requiring universal jurisdiction, as sovereign governments are in agreement that the inhibition of international trade and the endangerment of lines of communication makes the pirate an “enemy of humanity”.

    The Undivided Waters - Question of Jurisdiction

    Piracy laws were a thorny issue at the beginning, and can still present complex debates even today, as acts of piracy often take place outside the direct jurisdiction of any country. In theory, apprehending and prosecuting a pirate group on the High Seas would constitute a contravention of the freedom of the High Seas. Universal jurisdiction however judges that action can be taken in the case of pirates as they are subject to the description quoted above, as hostis humani generis (enemies of the human race).

    UK Regulations

    In the UK, the Royal Navy have been advised not to detain pirates of some nationalities, as the laws of those nations include in their jurisdiction the penalties of death or mutilation. As these methods of punishment contravene British extradition treaties, any pirate from those nations detained by Britain could claim political asylum for their own protection.

    Finally it can be said that it is high time that the seafaring nations of the world join heads to find a permanent and lasting solution for this increasing menace and that will certainly begin with putting proper and strict regulations in black and white which are agreeable to all and cover various legal aspects such as jurisdiction issues thoroughly