Putting political convenience aside, pirates are rarely also terrorists

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

A few months ago, I wrote a post entitled, Putting political convenience aside, pirates are simply not terrorists.  The piece argues that calls to treat all pirates as terrorists are totally unfounded, at least from a legal perspective. This is because, under international law, terrorism and piracy are accompanied by explicitly-defined, mutually exclusive motives.

Although I am standing by my substantive argument, the story of the MV Asphalt Venture is enough – as more astute readers may have noticed – to make me recalibrate my title a bit.

The Asphalt Venture is a Panamanian-flagged, Korean-owned vessel that was captured by pirates on September 28, 2010. On April 15, 2011, the pirates released eight of the Asphalt Venture’s fifteen crew members in exchange for a ransom payment, but the kept the remaining seven crew on board. Subsequently, the pirates issued a demand to the Indian government, particularly to the coastal state of Kerala, that the remaining hostages would not be released until India freed around 100 Somalis convicted of piracy and serving their sentences in India. Recently, the Asphalt Venture pirates have added a $5 million ransom to their list of demands of the Indian government. Old title notwithstanding, these pirates indeed became terrorists.

MV Asphalt Venture

As I explained in my earlier post, terrorism is characterized by a desire to either incite fear among the general public or to otherwise coerce a government. Conversely, piracy must be committed with the hopes of making money. Thus, where an individual takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of a ransom from a private entity, he is a pirate. Where he takes hostages on the high seas in hopes of shaping the behavior of a government, he is a terrorist.

Those who took the Asphalt Venture managed to be both. From September 28, 2010 to April 15, 2011, they were merely pirates, only interested in money moving from one private party to another. But the moment that the pirates engaged the Indian government, actively seeking to affect its behavior, those pirates also became terrorists.

Still, the case of the Asphalt Venture is best seen as an exception that proves the rule. Governments are famous for their refusal to pay ransoms, and pirates generally look to shipping companies and their insurers as the primary source of funds. Even with the Asphalt Venture itself, the pirates turned to the insurance company first, received their ransom, and only then did they make non-pecuniary demands of the Indian government.

I ended my last terrorism-related piece by noting that if “pirates tak[e] a less profitable course in favor of a strategy with large political payoff,” the terrorist-pirate distinction would come into play. This is exactly what has happened in the case of the MV Asphalt Venture. In abandoning their private ends in favor of increased political pressure, those who took the Asphalt Venture did not shed the moniker “pirate,” but they certainly gained the additional, arguably even less appealing label, of “terrorist.”

In the end, however, we should continue to be mindful that nothing short of actively pressuring a government to either take or refrain from a certain action can result in an accurate branding with the scarlet “T.” Looking at a single discrete incident to determine an individual’s motives and classify him as a pirate, terrorist, or both is one thing; seeking to apply the blanket term, “terrorist” to all pirates for political convenience is quite another.

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The Piracy Law Graph to End All Piracy Law Graphs

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

The tagline of Communis Hostis Omnium, “Navigating the Murky Legal Waters of Maritime Piracy,” is perfectly apt for describing the nature of piracy law. Even apart from the deft water metaphor, the tagline rightly points out that the nature of the law surrounding the oldest international crime is both unsettled and uncertain.

One of the thorniest doctrinal issues pertaining to piracy law is the question of whether facilitators of piracy must be physically present on the high seas to avail themselves to universal jurisdiction prosecutions. Much attention has been paid to the subject both on the pages of this blog and others. While working on a law review article on the subject, I generated this graph, which should give every international lawyer pause when considering the state of modern piracy law.

I created the graph above using Google Ngram, which is a tool that allows users to view a given word or phrase as a proportion of all words and phrases in the 20 million books scanned by Google to date. Rarely do numerical data paint such a clear picture. In short, piracy was of great import up until the turn of the twentieth century, where it was subsequent relegated to the backburner, not to be revived until the turn of the twenty-first century.

Presumably, international lawyers and the general public perceived this trend in a similar fashion, so the fact that all of the modern positive international law dealing with piracy was drafted during piracy’s wane should have a humbling effect. There is a significant chance that the drafters of UNCLOS and others who played a role in shaping the customary international law vis-à-vis maritime piracy saw piracy as more of a theoretical issue than a practical one. That fact should, in and of itself, play into the contemporary analysis.

This is not to say that the graph above proves anything one way or the other as far as a high seas requirement for facilitators is concerned. Rather, it is meant merely as food for thought to start your week by. We are dealing with an issue whose renaissance was not predicted by many – if any – scholars or practitioners of international law. What to do with that fact is an open question but one that should undoubtedly be taken seriously.

After a Brief Hiatus, Kenya Once Again Has Universal Jurisdiction Over Pirates

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project just outside Denver, Colorado, though the views expressed are solely those of the author. You can follow him on Twitter.

On October 18, the Kenyan Court of Appeal in Nairobi handed down a pivotal decision in In re Mohamud Mohammed Hashi, et al. It held that Kenya has jurisdiction to try piracy suspects whose alleged acts occurred beyond the country’s territorial waters. Due to Kenya’s central role in the emerging global network of piracy prosecutions, the Court’s ruling in Hashi will have positive implications both within and outside of Kenya.

The Honorable Mr. Justice David K. Maraga (photo: Kenya Law Reports)

The Court of Appeal decision overturns a ruling from the High Court of Mombasa that concluded, as noted by Roger on this blog, that “[Kenyan] Courts can only deal with offences or criminal incidents that take place within the territorial jurisdiction of Kenya.” Rather than summarizing the lower court’s opinion, I will simply direct readers to Roger’s excellent analysis of that case.

On appeal, Justice David Maraga stated that the High Court erred by, 1) “subordinating Section 69 of the Penal Code to Section 5”; 2) misinterpreting Sections 369 and 371 of the Merchant Shipping Act of 2009, and; 3) “fail[ing] to appreciate the applicability of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.”

With regards to the first ground of error, the Court Appeals took issue with the High Court’s interpretation of Section 5 of the Penal Code and its relationship to Section 69. Section 5 states that “The jurisdiction of the courts of Kenya…extends to every place within Kenya, including territorial waters.” The High Court characterized Section 5 as the “defining” Kenyan jurisdictional provision and concluded that Section 69, criminalizing piracy on the high seas, was “void, ab inicio.

Justice Maraga differed with the High Court’s position and held that “there is no conflict or gradation between [Sections 5 and 69].” He noted that Section 5 is part of Chapter 3 of the penal code, entitled “Territorial Application of the Code,” while Section 69 is contained in Chapter 8, “Offences affecting Relations with Foreign States and External Tranquility.” In short, Section 5 concerns itself with the territorial jurisdiction of Kenyan Courts and Section 69 deals with extraterritorial offenses. If anything, concluded Justice Maraga:

“on the established principle of statutory interpretation that in event of inconsistency in statutory provisions the “later in time” prevails, it is Section 69 [passed in 1967] which should supersede Section 5 [passed in 1930] but there is no warrant for that as there is no conflict between the two sections.”

MV Courier, the pirated ship at issue in Hashi (photo: ShipSpotting.com)

The second basis for overturning the High Court’s ruling arises out of the 2009 repeal of Section 69 of the Penal Code and its replacement with Section 369 of the Merchant Shipping Act. Below, the High Court suggested that repealing Section 69 took the crime of piracy jure gentium off the books. However, Section 369 Merchant Shipping Act, the article replacing Section 69, closely tracks UNCLOS article 101’s definition of piracy under international law. Accordingly, although the Merchant Shipping Act does not include the Latin phrase “jure gentium,” the crime of piracy under international law, according to the Court of Appeal, survived the statutory change.

In the alternative, Justice Maraga pointed to Section 23(3) of the Interpretation and General Provisions Act, which states that in the case of a law being repealed mid-proceeding, that proceeding shall move forward “as if the repealing written law had not been made.” Because the act in question was allegedly committed on March 3, 2009 and Section 69 was not repealed until September 1, 2009, the above-mentioned interpretive provision would apply in this case.

The final issue under consideration was the broader question of whether Kenya was authorized under international law to try piracy cases where the act in question was committed outside Kenya’s territorial jurisdiction by perpetrators and against victims who are not Kenyan nationals.

Justice Maraga responded by noting that piracy was a crime of universal jurisdiction and recounting Kenya’s participation in and adoption of UNSCR 1918 in April, 2012. This resolution “Calls on all States, including States in the region, to criminalize piracy under their domestic law and favourably consider the prosecution of suspected…pirates apprehended off the coast of Somalia…” Ultimately, Justice Maraga concluded that:

the offence of piracy on the coast of Somalia, which we are dealing with in this appeal, is of great concern to the international community as it has affected the economic activities and thus the economic well being of many countries including Kenya. All States, not necessarily those affected by it, have therefore a right to exercise universal jurisdiction to punish the offence.

This decision should be welcomed by the international community, especially those involved in the prosecution and detention of suspected pirates. Most immediately, Hashi allows for five separate piracy cases brought under Section 69 of the Kenyan Penal Code to move forward, clearing up a two-year backlog. More importantly, however, the Court of Appeal’s unequivocal acceptance of the principle of universal jurisdiction, its applicability to piracy jure gentium, and its incorporation in Kenyan municipal law ensures that Kenya can continue to play a central role in the regional prosecutions of piracy suspects.

Kiobel Oral Argument: Piracy May Spell Trouble for Shell

The Supreme Court opened up its October term with a healthy dose of international law in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell. The petitioner, Esther Kiobel, is bringing suit against Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) alleging that the oil company aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing gross human rights violations in the oil rich Ogoni region of Nigeria.

This is the second time this year that the Court has heard Paul Hoffman’s arguments in favor of the plaintiffs and Kathleen Sullivan’s arguments on behalf of Shell, and maritime piracy played a role in both rounds of arguments.

The first round of Kiobel oral arguments considered whether the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) could be applied to corporations as well as natural persons. There, Justice Breyer evoked the concept of “Pirates, Incorporated” to inquire into whether an in rem action against an 18th century pirate could be foreclosed because “Pirates, Inc.” rather than the individual pirate, owned the property at issue.

The United States Supreme Court

In the second round of oral arguments, held yesterday morning, the issue had changed from whether the ATS can be applied to corporations to whether it can be applied extraterritorially. Despite this change of focus, maritime piracy played an even more important substantive role in the second iteration of the Kiobel arguments than the first.

Piracy first came up when Justice Scalia asked Royal Dutch Shell’s attorney, Kathleen Sullivan, whether she believed – as Scalia thought she “must” – that the ATS applied to high seas conduct. She did not. Ms. Sullivan then quickly tried to turn her argument to the Marbois incident concerning an assault on a French diplomat.

But Chief Justice Roberts immediately raised the question of piracy again, noting that “it was the most clear violation of an international norm” at the time of the ATS’s passage.

Ms. Sullivan again attempted to minimize her high seas argument, noting that even if the justices concluded that the ATS reached high seas conduct, it does not extend into the territory of another state. However, she doubled down when she argued that Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain – the last ATS case heard by the Supreme Court – does not foreclose the possibility that the ATS’s reach stops at the high seas, as that opinion stated that piracy might be an area covered by the statute.

Despite her repeated attempts to stray away the issue of piracy, the oldest international crime came up again and again, including in the context of Filartiga v. Peña-Irala, where the Second Circuit held that, “[f]or the purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become – like the pirate and slave trader before him – an enemy of all mankind.”

As Shell’s attorney, Ms. Sullivan wished to steer clear of the issue of maritime piracy for several reasons. The first is that the Supreme Court explicitly found that the First Congress meant to include piracy as one of three torts available to 18th century ATS plaintiffs. The Supreme Court would likely be reluctant to admit that it was wrong less than a decade after Sosa was handed down.

Second, foreclosing ATS claims that occur on the high seas is the furthest possible extension of the respondents’ argument, one that the majority need not adopt to reach the respondents’ desired verdict.

Finally – and this may have been what Justice Scalia was getting at when he initially posed the question – it is difficult to find an example of an American law that applies on the high seas but not on foreign soil.[1] The presumption against extraterritoriality is purely a creature of Congressional intent, and it seems that Congress rarely distinguishes between the high seas and foreign soil when considering a statute’s extraterritoriality.

If the conservatives on the Supreme Court find the argument that ATS application on the high seas and on another country’s soil rises and falls together persuasive, there is enough historical evidence that the ATS was meant to apply to piracy that more newly-minted universal violations could ride on piracy’s coattails and allow for extraterritorial application of the ATS.

The effect such an opinion would have on pending litigation over a high seas requirement for facilitators of piracy is better saved for another day.


[1] Depending on the ultimate outcome of pending litigation, a notable exception to this general rule could be, however ironically, 18 USC § 1651, the statute criminalizing piracy.

Putting political convenience aside, pirates are simply not terrorists

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project in Boulder, Colorado (though all of his views are his own), and he has experience in United States piracy trials. He just got on Twitter. Cross-posted at The View from Above.

Pirates of Terrorists? Either way PCASPs are on board

While running through my piracy news roundup yesterday morning, I came across this piece by Robert Young Pelton of Somalia Report. In it, Pelton criticizes a report by Australia’s Lowy Institute that deals with the use of privately contracted armed security personnel (PCASP).

I took particular interest in a small tangent within Pelton’s piece that reflects an incorrect sentiment that I have seen repeated many times by non-attorneys (and even by some attorneys): that modern pirates should be considered terrorists.

As Pelton’s Somalia Report piece primarily concerns PCASP, the terrorism issue is only mentioned in a passing parenthetical:

“Pirates are criminals, (never terrorists because that would prevent the payment of ransoms) so it makes sense that a direct response by putting armed guards on ships was the most logical and so far, the most effective response to the pirate attacks.”

From this statement, I gather that Mr. Pelton is of the view that a key reason that the global anti-terrorism network has not been brought to bear against Somali pirates is that such an arrangement would force states to “negotiate with terrorists” once the pirates have seized the vessel and taken hostages. He appears to lament this fact. A similar view has been expressed by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and others who argue that relaxed rules concerning due process and state sovereignty as they are applied to terrorists would make the piracy fight a much easier one to win.

The oft-expressed desire to equate pirates with terrorists likely stems from several superficial similarities between the two groups. First, as Ambassador Bolton points out, “the same crippling evidentiary and procedural constraints” apply to both terrorists and pirates. Also, both groups consist of non-state actors operating in a truly international fashion to the detriment of the broader international community. Finally, both groups tend to base their operations in the Middle East/North Africa region.

Yet international law is clear as to the respective motives necessary to make one a terrorist or a pirate, and the facts on the ground suggest that, no matter how convenient it may be from a policy standpoint, pirates are not terrorists.

Judge Antonio Cassese, presiding over the Appeals Chamber at Special Tribunal for Lebanon, announced last year that a definition of terrorism has emerged under customary international law. Included in this definition is the requirement that the terrorist has “the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it.”

Conversely, it is well-documented that, although piratical intent is not limited to the desire to rob, for an act to be considered piratical, it must be committed for private ends. This requirement is explicitly laid out in UNCLOS art. 101, as well as its predecessor, 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas.

A terrorist’s intent must be to incite mass fear or coerce a government, both purely political motives; a pirate’s motive is strictly limited to making money.

In a smart piece here on piracy-law.com couching this definitional issue in terms of a potential defense available to alleged pirates, Roger Phillips rightly notes that, although in theory it is possible to have both political and pecuniary motives, the political motive appears absent in Somali pirates, who choose not to attack well-protected ships or kill hostages simply because it would be less profitable to do so. It seems like a stretch to argue that the pirates’ modus operandi of attacking a privately-owned ship in the middle of the ocean is somehow carried out in order to coerce a government or frighten the public at large by placing them in danger.

Though Roger covered it thoroughly, this definitional point bears repeating because the terrorist theme has gained so much traction in non-legal commentary on the issue of maritime piracy. As tempting as it is to “talk tough” about pirates and the international community’s response to piracy by evoking the specter of terrorism, there is very little merit to the claim that the two terms can, at least presently, be used interchangeably to describe Somali pirates or their West African counterparts.

Respect for the rule of law – apart from being perennial advice given by developed countries to countries like Somalia – requires taking the law as it is written (or trying to change it through legitimate processes) rather than molding it to fit one’s immediate policy preferences. Unless evidence of pirates taking a less profitable course in favor of a strategy with large political payoff emerges – or the definitions of piracy and/or terrorism change – the “pirates as terrorists” slogan will continue to be just that – a slogan.

The Tragedy of Universal Jurisdiction

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project in Boulder, Colorado (though all of his views are his own), and he has experience in United States piracy trials. He just got on Twitter. Cross-posted at The View from Above.

Picture a medieval town, 110 acres in size and populated entirely by 10 cattle ranchers. Each rancher lives on a 1 acre parcel of land that together surround a 100 acre open space used for grazing cattle.

If the 100 acre open space is shared by all 10 ranchers in common, each herder has a strong and continuing incentive to increase the size of his herd. For each additional cow sent to pasture, the individual herder receives the full benefit of one additional cow’s milk or meat. Yet because the grazing land is shared by all 10 ranchers in common, each herder suffers only 10% of the harm caused by that additional cow, which comes in the form of deterioration of the common grazing land.

Over time, however, as the ranchers realize this economic advantage and add additional heads of cattle to the pasture, the common land’s overall grazing capacity will diminish to the point that the land is no longer usable for any of our 10 medieval ranchers, leaving them all with less milk and meat than they would have had otherwise.

This parable, known as the “Tragedy of the Commons,” is well known to anyone who has sat through a college level economics class. It is often cited as a key rationale for the private ownership of property, illustrated in this case through the privatization of the grazing pasture that forced each herder to account for the full cost and benefit of each additional cow sent to pasture.

Other commons problems include population growth, fisheries, and pollution. In each scenario, the idea is that allocating costs and benefits in individuals – rather than in communities – is the surest way to ensure that resources are accurately valued and efficiently employed.

In its own way, the modern prosecution of pirates presents something of a commons problem, with prosecution under a theory of universal jurisdiction standing in for common grazing space and prosecution using a more direct theory of jurisdiction representing the enclosure of that common space.

Where a state prosecutes a pirate under the theory of universal jurisdiction, that state bears the vast majority – if not all – of the cost of the extradition, trial, and imprisonment of the suspect. While those costs are both real and substantial, the benefits are much less so. A prosecuting state asserting universal jurisdiction is fulfilling its international obligation to combat piracy as well as making the high seas marginally safer for international shipping traffic, but these benefits flow to the international community as a whole, in equal measure. No benefits fall discretely to the prosecuting state.

On the other hand, if a state prosecutes under territorial, nationality, passive personality, or protective jurisdiction, the costs of prosecution remain the same, but the benefits become both more sizable and more concrete. In addition to the undifferentiated benefits of a universal jurisdiction prosecution, the prosecuting state is either protecting its territorial integrity, punishing a national for committing piracy, vindicating violence committed against a citizen, or protecting its own political and economic interests, depending on the chosen theory of jurisdiction.

This brings us back to the classic commons parable involving the cattle ranchers.

In that example, the common grazing of land led to internalized benefits and externalized costs, which in turn led to an increase in economic activity even if such activity was imprudent in the long run. When the commons was enclosed, both costs and benefits were internalized within the individual rancher, who then tended to have the “right” amount of cattle on his pasture thereby improving every rancher’s individual prospects along with the prospects of the group.

Universal jurisdiction piracy prosecutions lead to a similar (though converse) situation where costs are internalized and benefits externalized such that under-prosecuting – as opposed to over-grazing – is the norm. If the benefits of prosecution are internalized within a given state through a more substantial basis for jurisdiction, the chances of a prosecution should actually increase.

Indeed, the facts on the ground suggest that piracy prosecutions can be viewed as a commons problem. In a 2010 empirical study, Eugene Kontorovich found that between 1998 and 2009, only fourteen out of the 1,063 reported piracies in international waters resulted in a universal jurisdiction prosecution, a rate of 1.31%.

Put another way, a state is over 75 times more likely to prosecute a pirate when the costs and benefits of prosecution – rather than just the costs – fall to that state. This is exactly what one would expect under the commons formulation.

In a simpler world, one in which more jurisdictional avenues are better than fewer, the idea that a pirate negotiator who neither enters into an ex ante agreement with the pirates nor is physically present on the high seas has not committed a crime of universal jurisdiction may appear to be a hindrance to the international community seeking to put an end to maritime piracy.

Yet both facts and theory tell a different story. States are much more likely to assert jurisdiction based on the territorial, national, passive personality, or protective theories of jurisdiction than universality, and if prosecuting pirates is fashioned as a commons issue, this is exactly what economic theory would predict.

When considering jurisdictional avenues to prosecute pirate negotiators at least, less can be more.

A second avenue to assert universal jurisdiction over negotiators

Jon Bellish is a Project Officer at the Oceans Beyond Piracy project in Boulder, Colorado (though all of his views are his own), and he has experience in United States piracy trials. He just got on Twitter. Cross-posted at The View From Above. 

In my previous post, I argued that the two pirate negotiators prosecuted by the United States – Mohammad Saaili Shibin and Ali Mohamed Ali – must have incited or intentionally facilitated piracy while on the high seas in order to have exposed themselves to prosecution by a court whole only basis for taking the case is universal jurisdiction.

There is another way for a pirate negotiator to subject himself to universal jurisdiction: an ex ante agreement to negotiate for pirates in the event of a successful hijacking.

This avenue is not applicable in the Shibin or Ali cases, as there is no evidence suggesting such an agreement, but it is nonetheless worth exploring because this is the avenue through which the true kingpins can be brought to justice.

The source of this second avenue of universal jurisdiction is the plain meaning of the verbs “to incite” and “to facilitate” contained in UNCLOS art. 101(c).

In the English dictionaries of the 18th, 19th, and 21st centuries, to incite is “to stir up,” “to animate,” and “to move to action.” To facilitate is to “to make easy,” “to free from difficulty,” or “to help bring about.”

Both of these verbs have prospective implications. An inciter or facilitator must either induce violence, detention or deprivation on the high seas or make such violence, detention, or deprivation on the high seas easier than that it would have been without the inciter or facilitator.

It strains both logic and credulity to suggest that an individual who had no involvement in – or even knowledge of – a hijacking on the high seas somehow spurred on or made easier that particular hijacking.

So in the end, we are left with two potential avenues for a pirate negotiator to subject himself to universal jurisdiction. The first is to commit an act of inciting or facilitating while physically present on the high seas, and the second is to enter into an ex ante agreement with the pirates.

The second avenue brings the real kingpins – financiers and investors, not negotiators – within the scope of universal jurisdiction. As for negotiators who neither enter into an ex ante agreements nor set foot on the high seas, they should still be judiciously targeted for prosecution, but something more than universal jurisdiction is required.

Flag states of the victim ship, national states of the crewmembers, as well as Somalia itself must step in and fulfill their international obligation to prosecute.