Repressing Maritime Piracy Under International Law
by Dennis M. McElwee on May 01, 2012
Maritime piracy has existed nearly as long as maritime shipping and commerce. Knowing a little about the history of prosecuting pirates and how international law has evolved can help a maritime lawyer in cases involving victims of this crime.
Crime Against Commerce
In the past, maritime traditions quickly developed to give jurisdiction to any nation to prosecute maritime pirates. This was because those who robbed the cargo from freighters and harmed crewmembers or passengers were considered enemies of all human beings and enemies of commerce.
Maritime piracy causes the costs of goods shipped by sea to increase, both by reducing the availability of goods on the open market, and by causing insurance rates to increase.
High Court On The High Seas
Those accused of maritime piracy were often subject to summary trials aboard naval vessels. The commanders of naval vessels of any nation were considered authorized to conduct trials if they or their crews witnessed or received information about acts of piracy on the high seas.
The effect of the wide latitude that naval commanders and admiralty courts had in prosecuting maritime piracy was that piracy was effectively suppressed until very late in the 20th century, when pirates became active off the coast of Somalia.
Somalia: Maritime Piracy Hot Spot
One reason pirates chose waters off the coast of Somalia to steal cargo or hold ships for ransom was that the government of Somalia had failed. There was no one in Somalia to prosecute acts of piracy. Other governments were often reluctant to prosecute such crimes because of the expense and political implications. Neighboring nations were sometimes reluctant to be perceived as prosecutors of those who successfully extracted money or goods from First World nations or corporations.
Maritime Piracy And International Law
There has been some discussion of trying acts of piracy committed on the high seas at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The arguments against doing so are that it would stretch the resources of the court and distract the court from its core mission of trying cases of genocide, war crimes, and other such crimes that are considered grave offenses against humanity. Although people are often harmed and killed in piratical acts, piracy is considered by many to be more of a crime against commerce than against humanity.
In 1947, the United Nations established the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This convention gave a specific definition of piracy, with which a maritime lawyer should be well familiar. Prosecuting piracy is still considered within the jurisdiction of any nation, since all nations are affected by piracy. UNCLOS sets forth rules for prosecuting accused pirates so that their basic human rights are not violated.
Defining Maritime Piracy
The definition of maritime piracy under UNCLOS is more specific than previous definitions under international laws. The UNCLOS definition includes acts committed aboard aircraft as well as seagoing vessels.
More importantly for a maritime lawyer, the UNCLOS definition specifies that acts must be committed outside of the jurisdiction of any state. If an act occurs within the territorial waters of a nation, it is within the jurisdiction of that nation. A maritime lawyer should be aware that some nations are reluctant to prosecute piracy under international jurisdiction because they are concerned that the accused, if prosecuted successfully, may request asylum for themselves and their family members after they have served their term of incarceration.
If you’ve been the victim of maritime piracy, consult the experienced maritime lawyers at Schechter, McElwee, Shaffer & Harris to find out what options are available to you.