Somalia’s New Constitution (what it does and doesn’t do for piracy)

Somalia’s Official Emblem adopted by the 2012 Provisional Constitution

On 1 August, delegates to the Somalia’s National Constituent Assembly adopted a provisional constitution. The document must still be approved by a majority vote of the electorate in a referendum. Nonetheless, the Provisional Constitution marks an important step towards the establishment of a representative federal government in Somalia. Further, it has significant ramifications for the prosecution of piracy.

Article 140 of the Provisional Constitution requires the Somali Federal Government to respect all prior treaty obligations. This includes UNCLOS which a preceding government signed in 1982 and ratified on 24 July 1989. Of course, UNCLOS sets forth the definition of the international crime of piracy, but in the event of any lacunae in that definition, Article 40 of the Provisional Constitution permits reference to Shariah Law, international law and decisions of courts in other countries as persuasive authority. Therefore, reference may be made to recent piracy judgements in Seychelles, Netherlands, France, and the U.S. among others.

In addition, the Provisional Constitution provides extensive individual rights for criminal defendants. These include a fundamental right to be brought before a capable court within 48 hours of arrest (see Article 35(5)). If pirates are arrested at sea it may be impracticable to bring them before a judge within that time frame. In such cases, some remedy, in the form of a reduced sentence (upon eventual conviction) or the dropping of charges (in extreme cases) will have to be considered. An alternative would be to perform an arraignment (first appearance) aboard the capturing vessel. But for this to be plausible, it might be necessary to bring a Somali judge onto the naval vessel. If the arraignment were performed by a judge from a foreign nation (e.g. a national of the naval power that captured the pirates), the judge would not have the power to put the Accused on notice of charges under Somali law.

Article 35 also incorporates the principle of nullum crimen sine lege (prohibition against ex post facto legislation). In the case of piracy, this should not prove controversial as Somalia ratified UNCLOS, which defines piracy, in 1989. However, the principle of nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without law) is also incorporated within this concept. Thus, without a specific sentencing regime in force for piracy, one could argue that an Accused did not have notice of the potential range of penalties available for those convicted of piracy thereby rendering any punishment impermissible. One might look to prior Somali legislation to fill this gap. But as Matteo has previously noted, Somalia’s prior anti-piracy legislation lacked a number of important provisions and was inconsistent with customary international law. The new Somali Federal Parliament will soon have an opportunity to remedy these problems as the Constitution sets forth a list of priority legislation to be enacted by the Federal Parliament and anti-piracy legislation appears 16th on this list. See Schedule One (d).

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