Event: The Global Fight against Maritime Piracy – Learning Lessons from Somalia

Global Policy Journal and the Greenwich Maritime Institute are hosting a seminar on contemporary maritime piracy. This is the theme of a special section published in the February 2013 issue of Global Policy, edited by Dr Christian Bueger of Cardiff University.

The seminar will take place on April 17th from 18.00-20.00 in the Howe Lecture Theatre, Queen Anne Court, Greenwich Campus of Greenwich University. The event is free to attend and hosted by the Greenwich Maritime Institute.

The Global Fight against Maritime Piracy – Learning Lessons from Somalia

The fight against maritime piracy remains a crucial global challenge. Current incident numbers indicate that piracy in Eastern African waters is in decline and that the measures taken by the international community and the shipping industry have been effective. Yet, the global fight against piracy is not won. Questions have to be addressed how piracy can be contained and prevented in the long run, beyond the engagement of international naval forces. What are the lessons learned from our experience with Somali piracy? What help can be expected from development aid? How can state building assist maritime security? What role should navies have in ensuring good order at sea? What contributions can the transport industry make to prevent and contain piracy? What types of global and regional governance institutions will be required to prevent further outbreaks of piracy? The authors and panelists will address these and other questions based on their practical and academic expertise.

Confirmed panellists include Professor Christopher Bellamy, (Director of the Greenwich Maritime Institute) Dr Christian Bueger (Cardiff University), Dr Douglas Guilfoyle (University College London), Dr Axel Klein (University of Kent), Dr Anja Shortland (Brunel University), as well as representatives from the maritime security sector.

One Step Closer to a Pirate Amnesty

The Special Court for Sierra Leone held that the amnesty granted to rebel leader Morris Kallon (left) did not deprive the court of jurisdiction to prosecute the Accused.

It is being reported that Somalia’s federal government is offering an amnesty to junior pirates in an attempt to end the hijackings of merchant vessels. The Somali President notes that the amnesty is intended for low-level pirates and not pirate kingpins. “We are not giving them amnesty, the amnesty is for the boys,” he said. Depending on how the amnesty is framed, however, it could run afoul of an international obligation to prosecute universal jurisdiction crimes. As we noted last August when President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed first discussed the possibility of a pirate amnesty, the duty to prosecute arises not only from the treaty obligations taken on by states but also the egregiousness of the proscribed conduct. Based on this international norm, there may be a duty to prosecute pirates who have engaged in the practice of torturing hostages or for any other act constituting piracy if sufficiently egregious.

Moreover, a national amnesty granted by Somalia might not be respected by other states who have prosecuted hundreds of Somali pirates over the last several years. The Special Court for Sierra Leone declared an amnesty was “ineffective in removing the universal jurisdiction to prosecute persons accused of such crimes that other states have by reason of the nature of the crimes. It is also ineffective in depriving an international court such as the Special Court of jurisdiction.” We previously noted the similar situation in Nigeria, where pirates had accepted an offer of amnesty, but subsequently returned to arms due to the Nigerian government’s failure to provide alternative means of livelihood as it had promised. For Somalia, the lesson is that an amnesty must be accompanied by job training and job creation to be effective. Such a program is potentially very expensive. However, certain international organizations and NGOs may be willing to assist in this regard.

Chinese Drones and Mekong Piracy

Naw Kham (first from right) and members of his gang hear the verdict of the first trial at the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court in Yunnan Province on November 6, 2012. Photo: CFP

There have been some interesting revelations in the case of Naw Kham, the so-called Mekong Pirate who presided over a transnational criminal network in the Golden Triangle of the Mekong river basin. (prior coverage here). Although Naw Kham was convicted of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping and hijacking across international borders, this does not constitute piracy under UNCLOS as it did not occur on the high seas. Nonetheless, the case provides a fascinating case study in transnational organized crime and has important analogies to piracy on the high seas. Chinese media have focused on the operation to capture Naw Kham, whereas Western media have focused on the fact that China considered using an unmanned drone to kill him.

First the Chinese government-published Global Times provides details on how Naw Kham avoided capture by the Chinese in the Golden Triangle for so long.

During the search, Naw Kham vanished at least three times just as the Chinese police were closing in. [Taskforce leader] Liu said that this was largely because the Chinese police were limited in what they could do overseas. They had to launch appeals before undertaking operations and cooperate with local police.

But Naw Kham had lived in the Golden Triangle for many years and sometimes locals would aid him.

At the end of 2011, Chinese police located Naw Kham at a village by the Mekong River in Boqiao Province in Laos, the hometown of one of Naw Kham’s mistresses.

Chinese and local police encircled the village, but some local officials and villagers obstructed them. “We hit a stalemate. Police were not allowed to enter the village. Even though the local police head was with us, provincial officials were on the other side,” Liu said.

“The deadlock lasted hours, and it was getting dark. According to local customs, the search would have to be suspended after sunset.”

Liu finally found a senior military officer to help break the deadlock; however, police were only able to search six houses in the village and arrest the mistress and some gang members, seizing guns and cash. At night, Naw Kham crossed into Myanmar with the help of locals.

This highlights the fact that transnational criminality, and piracy in particular, will thrive where three conditions coexist: (1) lack of naval/police enforcement; (2) existence of water-borne commerce of significant value; and (3) poverty – motivating foot-soldiers to take extraordinary risks. In this case, the geography and multiple borders provided cross-jurisdictional cover for Naw Kham. Without strong international cooperation, he would not have been captured.

China’s unmanned Yi Long drone on display at the airshow in Zhuhai

In contrast, the New York Times have seized on the mention in the Global Times article that China had considered using an unarmed drone to kill Naw Kham.

Dennis M. Gormley, an expert on unmanned aircraft at the University of Pittsburgh, said of the reported Chinese deliberations, “Separating fact from fiction here is difficult.” But he added, “Given the gruesome nature of the 2011 killings  [for which Naw Kham was convicted] and the Chinese public’s outcry for action, it’s not at all surprising to imagine China employing an armed drone over Myanmar’s territory.”

Mr. Gormley said the decision not to carry out a drone strike might reflect a lack of confidence in untested Chinese craft, control systems or drone pilots. “I think China’s still not ready for prime time using armed drones, but they surely will be with a few more years of determined practice,” he said. “And they surely will have America’s armed drone practice as a convenient cover for legitimating their own practice.”

Similarly, the United States had considered using unmanned drones against Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, but that program suffered setbacks and U.S. drones were likely only used to surveil pirate-operations off the coast of Somalia. Ultimately, China decided not to use its new assets. Indeed, capturing Naw Kham with no reported casualties and without the need to launch a military strike in Thailand, Laos, or Myanmar was a much cleaner solution.

Language, Capacity Issues Plague Indian Prosecutions of Somali Pirates

Suspects aboard the pirate ship the INS Taba on their way to Mumbai after being arrested by the Indian navy in March 2011. Photograph: Indian navy/EPA

The trial of about 120 Somalis in India is encountering significant obstacles, including difficulty finding qualified Somali-speaking interpreters, procuring deposition evidence from victims, and dealing with the sheer volume of cases on backlog. India’s navy has been very active in helping to patrol the seas off the coast of Somalia. It also recently used its turn as President of the Security Council to put the fight against worldwide piracy at center stage. Perhaps because of its pro-active approach, India has taken into custody a large number of suspected pirates. As we have seen in any number of western countries taking up piracy prosecutions, there are substantial challenges that come with prosecuting Somalis in a transnational setting. This is not to mention the legal obstacles faced by countries attempting to revive centuries old laws to address the resurgence of this type of criminality. As we surveyed in 2011, India’s legal framework for piracy required updating. Video-link testimony and interpretation, in addition to, a more active foreign office might assist the prosecutions in these cases.  Of course, all of these solutions require resources and technological capacity. This is true whether prosecutions move forward in the Netherlands, the U.S. or in India.

SCOTUS Denies Hearing of Piracy Cases

Lady Justice in front of the U.S. Supreme Court

We have been following a number of piracy cases in the U.S. two of which had resulted in convictions and looked like they might be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS). The issue in U.S. v. Said and U.S. v. Dire was whether piracy, as defined by the law of nations, incorporates modern developments in international law. See also here. By declining to hear the cases, SCOTUS takes no view on the debate. However, in several lower court decisions, judges have relied on the pronouncement in Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain that claims “must be gauged against the current state of international law, looking to those sources we have long, albeit cautiously, recognized.” This conclusion runs counter to a judicial philosophy of strictly construing the plain language of a statute based on the understanding of the congressional authors at the time the act came into law. Because piracy was a novel issue unaddressed by SCOTUS in several hundred years, and because the legal issue on appeal invited strong ideological views, I had thought the case for hearing Said and Dire was fairly strong. Nonetheless, one weakness in the argument was that there was no split of authority between the federal courts of appeal (one basis for SCOTUS granting discretionary review). Both cases originated in the 4th circuit and reached the same conclusion on this point of law.

The same is not necessarily true in a second set of cases in U.S. courts involving pirate negotiators. In the case of U.S. v. Shibin, in the 4th Circuit, the defendant was convicted for aiding and abetting piracy although he was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters. In U.S. v. Ali, the federal court in the DC Circuit reached the opposite result and dismissed the aiding and abetting charges against an alleged pirate negotiator because it held that piracy must be committed on the high seas. These cases raise the issue of whether piracy can be perpetrated on land or within a state’s territorial waters, despite UNCLOS defining piracy as an offense perpetrated on the high seas. U.S. v. Ali is the subject of a prosecution interlocutory appeal on this issue, and Shibin’s conviction is on appeal to the 4th Circuit. Therefore SCOTUS might have another opportunity to get involved in the piracy debate and to make a contribution to the status of customary international law on the subject – although it might take another year for these cases to be ripe for review. On the other hand, it appears both circuits might reach the same conclusion and find that aiding and abetting piracy can be perpetrated on land – a position I have argued in a forthcoming law review article in the Florida Journal of International Law.