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.

A High Seas Requirement for Pirate Facilitators Under UNCLOS?

Regular contributor Jon Bellish presents the following commentary, cross-posted at The View From Above. We previously posted on this topic here and here where Roger reached similar conclusions to Douglas Guilfoyle, cited below. 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.

The economic conditions in Somalia are such that there is no shortage of men willing to hijack a ship, risking their lives in hopes of earning of the equivalent of 20 years of income – $5,000 in Somalia – out of a single $1.5 million ransom. That basic reality is the driving force of modern maritime piracy, and it leads to a similarly basic conclusion.

Aside from fixing the economic situation in Somalia, prosecution of those higher up in the criminal chain of conspiracy – the investors and financiers of piratical operations – is the most effective, non-violent means of to putting an end to maritime piracy. If labor is cheap and capital is scarce, it makes sense to go after the capital.

The United States government has done its part by prosecuting two pirate negotiators,[1] Mohammad Saaili Shibin and Ali Mohamed Ali. The current dispositions of these cases highlight an interesting and important legal issue stemming from a common characteristic of piracy higher-ups. They themselves never set foot on the high seas.[2]

In Shibin’s case, Judge Robert Doumar allowed his trial to proceed; Shibin was found guilty and sentenced to 12 terms of life. In the Ali case however, which is still in progress, Judge Ellen Huevelle has found[3] that the perpetrator must be on the high seas for a crime of universal jurisdiction to occur.

What accounts for this discrepancy in United States courts? Who has the better of the argument? The answers to these questions have profound implications for the future of prosecuting those who profit most from piracy.

At the heart of this disagreement is a dispute over the proper interpretation of the UNCLOS definition of piracy and the United States’s federal statute criminalizing piracy under the law of nations. Both of these texts must be read according to one of the most basic canons of statutory interpretation — that statutory language not be read as being duplicative or ineffectual.

Opponents of a high seas requirement, such as Douglas Guilfoyle at University College London, argue  that UNCLOS art. 101’s definition of piracy makes it clear that performing piratical acts carries a high seas requirement, but acts of inciting or intentionally facilitating piracy can be performed anywhere, implying that both are crimes of universal jurisdiction.

To support this argument, opponents cite art. 101(a)(i) of UNCLOS, which states that piracy “consists of…any act of violence or detention [or deprivation]… committed for private ends by the crew… of a private ship…and directed…on the high seas, against another ship” [emphasis added]. They contrast that section with the next part of the piracy definition, art. 101(c), which says “any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a)” constitutes piracy. Opponents of a high seas requirement for facilitators conclude that, because UNCLOS announces a high seas requirement in subparagraph (a) and not in subparagraph (c), no such requirement exists for facilitation.

Conversely, proponents of a high seas requirement, including Northwestern University’s Eugene Kontorovich, cite various provisions of UNCLOS suggesting that universal jurisdiction over maritime piracy exists only where the act takes place on the high seas.

Chief among these provisions are arts. 100 and 105. The former limits a state’s duty to cooperate in the repression of piracy, and the latter restricts states’ universal capturing and adjudicating authority over pirates to acts occurring on the high seas. Additionally, art. 86 explicitly states that Part VII of UNCLOS (the part including the definition of piracy) only applies to the high seas and other areas outside the jurisdiction of any state.

Opponents counter that even if all of the aforementioned high seas references are operable, the drafters’ inclusion of a high seas requirement in 101(a) is otiose if 101(a) and (c) already had an implicit high seas requirement. Any other reading, they argue, is contrary to one of the most fundamental canons of statutory interpretation.

This is a mistake stemming from a conflation of UNCLOS’s definition of piracy and its pronouncements on universal jurisdiction. Opponents may be correct in suggesting that there is no high seas requirement for facilitators to commit statutory piracy as defined by UNCLOS, but they are wrong in arguing that performing an act described in art. 101 leads directly to universal jurisdiction.

Where piracy is concerned, UNCLOS performs at least two discrete functions: defining piracy and delineating the metes and bounds of universal jurisdiction over piracy. Art. 101 defines piracy as, inter alia, any act of violence, detention or deprivation on the high seas or any act of inciting or intentionally facilitating such an act. Where the statutory definition is concerned, there is a high seas requirement for perpetrators but none for inciters or facilitators.

Art. 101 says nothing about universal jurisdiction, however, and the parts of UNCLOS that do discuss universal jurisdiction – arts. 100, 105, and 86 – make it unmistakably plain that such jurisdiction extends only to acts physically performed on the high seas.

This dichotomy between the statutory definition of piracy and the high seas requirement for universal jurisdiction over piracy is borne out in 18 U.S.C. § 1651, which reads, “Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”

Section 1651 splices the definition of piracy and its high seas requirement as precondition for universal jurisdiction, outsourcing the former to international law (“as defined by the law of nations”) while making the latter explicit in the treaty (“[w]hoever, on the high seas”) , which is entirely consistent with the plain language of UNCLOS and the canon of construction at issue.

This means that, as defined by UNCLOS, negotiators and financiers who never set foot on the high seas have committed piracy, but that they have not committed a crime of universal jurisdiction. Unless higher-ups enter the high seas, they can be prosecuted only under the territorial, national, passive personality, and protective bases for jurisdiction.

At first blush, it may appear that such an interpretation does not bode well for those seeking to put an end to the global menace of maritime piracy, especially in light of the widely-held belief that the surest non-violent way to deter the piracy, apart from economic reconstruction in Somalia, is through the aggressive prosecution of so-called pirate “kingpins.”

In the coming weeks, however, I hope to dispel the notion that a high seas requirement for facilitators is bad for the international community. Such a requirement is in line with the policy rationale behind universal jurisdiction and it may ultimately be useful in prosecuting and punishing pirate financiers who never leave dry land.


[1] To be clear; negotiators are not financiers. Financiers perform much less physical labor and reap much more of the profits than negotiators. Though it is financiers that should be the ultimate targets, negotiators are in a similar legal position and are therefore highly relevant. Both groups facilitate, rather than perpetrate acts of piracy, and neither tends to enter the high seas.

[2] This fact was stipulated in Shibin’s case but is still at issue in Ali’s. Although the government claims Ali spent only 24-28 minutes outside Somali territorial waters, it has admitted that there is no evidence that Ali actively facilitated piracy during that time period.

[3] Take a look at Judge Huvelle’s opinion, which is a fine example of the U.S. Federal Bench’s appreciation and understanding of international law.