Private Security Liability under the Alien Tort Statute

Hasan Abdullah Quanas, a Yemeni fisherman, stands at the prow of the fishing boat on which his nephew Mohammed Ali Quanas was killed by shots fired from the Nordic Fighter tanker in the Red Sea on Aug. 3, 2011. Photo: Alan Katz

There has been a long discussion concerning if and how to regulate private security contractors hired to protect merchant vessels against pirates. See e.g. here and here. Only last week, the Security Council emphasized in the Presidential Statement issued after its debate on piracy that it “encourage[d] flag States and port States to further consider the development of safety and security measures onboard vessels, including regulations for the deployment of PCASP [privately contracted armed security personnel] on board ships through a consultative process, including through International Maritime Organization and International Standards Organization.”

As noted by Christine, two incidents in particular have raised the specter that innocent fishermen have been killed by PMSCs (Private Military and Private Security Companies)(the term we have used on this site). One incident involved a vessel protection detachment (VPD) of Italian special forces who killed two Indian fishermen believing them to be pirates. See here and here. Another incident involved the death of a Yemeni fisherman allegedly at the hands of a Russian VPD. As to the latter incident, it was reported:

From 500 meters (1,640 feet) away, gunshots erupted from the tanker toward Quanas’s skiff and its unarmed fishermen. Two rounds pierced the water on the motorboat’s starboard side, and a third slammed into Quanas’s face, just under his right eye, according to survivors on the boat and a Yemeni Coast Guard investigation. As the bullet came through the back of his neck, Quanas moaned, held out a hand, collapsed and died.

“He was killed while he was holding some dough for dinner,” says Quanas’s uncle, Hasan Abdullah Quanas, who was in the prow and saw his nephew fall. Hasan abandoned fishing after the shooting for fear that he too could become collateral damage in the increasingly violent fight to tame piracy on the high seas.

These are some of the few incidents that have been reported, but there are very likely more incidents where PMSCs or VPDs have mistakenly fired upon, injured, or killed innocents on the high seas. Presently, a ship’s flag state regulates the conduct of PMSCs and VPDs aboard ships on the high seas. There is no universally binding code of conduct, although the IMB has published interim guidelines. Nonetheless, PMSCs are potentially liable for acts of piracy for the killing of fishermen based on universal jurisdiction in the United States.

As many readers know, the Alien Tort Statute in the United States authorizes civil suit in U.S. federal courts against individuals (and perhaps corporations) who have violated the law of nations. The Alien Tort Statute has generally been used to pursue perpetrators of mass human rights violations. Although the drafting history of the statute is scarce and has made it very difficult to ascertain the original intent of Congress in adopting the statute, many are of the view that the Alien Tort Statute was initially intended to cover, at least, acts of piracy. Professor Alfred Rubin, in his treaty on the law of piracy, notes that the original intent was to provide a basis for civil suit against pirates:

[In 1792, US Attorney General Randolph envisaged the Alien Tort Statute to be a] supplement to criminal process to permit the victim of a wrongful taking aboard to recover his property when the tort law of the place of taking and the tort law of the United States coincided and the taker or the property was in the territorial jurisdiction of American courts. It would have had obvious applicability to aliens seeking to recover their goods from “pirates” as well as from those taking their property aboard, but seems to have rested on Blackstone’s naturalist conception of the ‘law of nations’.

In other words, the original intent of the Alien Tort Statute was to permit civil suit against pirates in US federal court. The law of nations defines piracy as any illegal acts of violence committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship and directed against another ship (UNCLOS Art. 101(1)(a)). An act of violence by a PMSC against fishermen on the high seas would satisfy this definition. Therefore, PMSC’s are themselves liable for acts of piracy if they mistakenly injure or kill fishermen. Further, the Alien Tort Statute provides jurisdiction in US Federal Court to seek compensation for such illegal acts.

Acts of violence by a VPD might not fall within this definition since VPDs are state-sponsored and therefore precluded by the “private ends” requirement of the piracy definition. However, PMSCs are not state-sponsored. Another question is whether the law of self-defence may authorize some acts of violence against ships believed to be carrying pirates. On this point, it has been suggested that the permissibility of self-defence against possible pirates is determined by reference to the subjective intent of the private security detail. One proposed self-defence guideline provides, “A person acts in lawful self-defence of himself or another when he has an honest belief that he or the other person is under attack or imminently to be attacked so that it is necessary to defend himself or the other person by using no more force than is reasonably necessary to repel the attack or threatened attack.” (emphasis added).

I am sceptical that this formulation of self-defence is comprehensive and inclusive of general principles of law as understood by the major legal systems of the world. See here. It is more likely an expression of black letter law from the British common law system. In any event, under most systems of law, self-defence must be proportionate to the danger posed. The question remains whether the objective fact that an approaching boat is composed of unarmed fishermen would preclude self-defence as a justification for such conduct.

Another possible obstacle is a jurisdictional one. Currently before the US Supreme Court is the question whether there must be some nexus with the United States, in addition to the requirements of universal jurisdiction, to permit suits based on the Alien Tort Statute. This might be satisfied if an act of violence by a PMSC were committed against an American ship, seafarer, or perhaps even cargo while on the high seas or if they were committed by an American PMSC. If the US Supreme Court were to require such a nexus, it could preclude other civil suits with no connection to US interests.

In any event, PMSCs should be cognizant of the fact that they could be subject to civil and was as criminal penalties for causing damage to or killing individuals who are not in fact pirates on the high seas.

Weekly Piracy Review: United Nations Involvement

Romanian boarding team brings suspected pirates and their skiff back to the ROS Regele Ferdinand

Wednesday morning (November 21) a Swedish air patrol reported the presence of a suspicious skiff off the coast of Somalia. Romanian and Turkish warships approached the skiff, and the suspected pirates attempted to evade capture for about an hour. The warships were assisted in their pursuit by a Luxembourg helicopter, which easily kept track of the skiff. Finally, the Turkish team was able to search the boat while the nine suspected pirates were detained onboard the Romanian warship. The skiff  had been sighted earlier in known pirate waters, and no fishing supplies were found. Despite the strong suspicion that this was a pirate boat, the EU team determined that there was not sufficient evidence to build a case and prosecute these men, as they were not caught actually committing any crimes. The suspects were released onto a Somali beach on Thursday. After releasing the men EU naval forces sunk the skiff, causing these suspected pirates to lose their fuel, transportation, and ladders; and hopefully ensuring that these pirates will not be able to return to the seas in the near future. Rear Adm. Duncan Potts, the force’s operation commander, stated: “My message to the pirates is clear — we are watching you and we plan to capture you if you put to sea.”

Vietnamese boarding team re-captured hijacked Malaysian chemical tanker; arrested 11 suspected pirates

On November 17, a Malaysian-owned chemical tanker was hijacked in the South China Sea by a group of Indonesian pirates and taken to Vietnamese waters. After the International Maritime Bureau sent out an alert, Vietnamese authorities re-captured the vessel (which had been repainted and reflagged) and arrested the eleven suspected pirates on November 22. The nine crew members who were on board the hijacked tanker were forced into a life raft and released at sea on Wednesday. They were all rescued by local fishermen. This attack, the hijacking of a laden tanker, is said to be the first of its kind in the region in several years.

As previously reported here and here, Indian Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri holds the UN Security Council presidency this month, and convened the first Security Council debate on the general threat to world peace and security posed by maritime piracy. Puri stated that forty-three Indian citizens are currently being held hostage by pirates, and it is estimated that piracy costs the maritime industry at least $6.6 billion annually for security. U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said that countries who are involved in counter-piracy operations need better communication with each other, and called for an agreement on the rules regulating the placement of private armed guards on merchant ships. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice asserted that no ship carrying armed guards has been successfully hijacked, but the merits are controversial. Russian and Italian private guards have inadvertently fired on and killed fishermen off the coast of Somalia, mistakenly believing they were pirates approaching with the intent to board. French Ambassador Gerard Araud emphasized the greater deterrent effect that government-posted naval patrols have in warding off attacks. He also stressed the fact that about 80% of those arrested on suspicion of piracy are released without facing any prosecution, and that there is a need for a more efficient system of justice. More than twenty different nations have apprehended pirates off the coast of Somalia, and without a system in place to handle those arrested, many have simply been released back to Somalia. Though piracy is down this year, it is widely accepted that there must continue to be a strong focus on counter-piracy measures, or attacks will increase again.

Hardeep Singh Puri, Indian Ambassador to the UN, called for Security Council debate on piracy

The following day, the Security Council renewed authorizations put in place in 2008, which were developed to allow international cooperation in the fight against piracy. The Council emphasized the role Somalia is expected to play in these efforts and requested that the nation pass a complete set of anti-piracy laws. It also called on all member states to fully criminalize acts of piracy and assist Somalia in its implementation of more effective policies to combat the problem. The development of specialized anti-piracy courts in Somalia and other similarly affected states was termed a priority. South Africa’s representative, while agreeing that the adoption of these measures is an important step, emphasized that as a whole the efforts ought to include measures to combat the root causes of piracy in order to stop it before it starts.

The International Maritime Bureau reports that as of November 20, there have been 261 total attacks worldwide and twenty-six hijackings worldwide so far this year. Of those numbers, Somalia accounts for seventy-one incidents and thirteen hijackings, with 212 total hostages. Currently, Somali pirates hold nine vessels and 154 hostages.

Weekly Piracy Review: Land-Based Counter Measures

Three vessels from Russia’s Pacific fleet are en route to replace Russia’s current deployment in the Arabian sea and take over their counter-piracy patrols in the area. This flotilla is the eighth sent from Russia since they joined the international anti-piracy operations three years ago. During this time the Russian Navy has escorted more than 130 commercial and aid ships through the Red Sea and other pirate-infested shipping lanes off Africa.

NATO’s counter-piracy ships in the Indian Ocean are focusing this week on patrolling waters along the shore of Somalia. Teams have employed smaller rigid-hull inflatable boats to approach the skiffs and fishing boats run by Somalis to exchange information with them regarding the continued presence of patrolling warships in the area. This campaign is undertaken with the intent of discouraging would-be pirates from beginning the enterprise at all, before they launch their boats. Though the increased presence of patrol ships and better communication between merchant vessels has made it increasingly difficult for pirate boats to remain unseen at sea for extended periods of time, the hope is that making the naval presence more well-known close to shore will discourage pirates from setting out to sea at all.

Speakers at the Maritime and Coastal Security Africa 2012 conference held in Cape Town last week discussed the variety of factors that have caused a recent drop in the number of pirate attacks carried out this year [from increased presence of warships and patrols to enhanced communication regarding pirate sightings and the placement of armed guards onboard merchant vessels]. Jason Marriott-Watson of the maritime security company ISPS Group asserted that the recent seizure of the Somali port city of Kismayo from al-Shabab militants was a major cause of this decline. Kismayo had been a stronghold for Somali pirates until control was taken from the group, which is linked to al Qaeda. Many of the al-Shabab militants were arrested by the African Union forces who wrested back control, which were led by Kenyan troops.

Worldwide, pirates have killed at least six crew and taken 448 seafarers hostage this year. The IMB reports that 125 vessels were boarded, 24 hijacked and 26 fired upon while there were 58 attempted attacks. These numbers are the lowest reported since 2009, when maritime piracy was at its height. They show the success of the effort undertaken by the international community to put pressure on those committing acts of piracy, but many organizations say the need for vigilance has not decreased and warn against complacency.

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.

Ahead of Security Council Debate, Secretary General Outlines Anti-Piracy Progress

As anticipated by Roger, on 19 November 2012 the UN Security Council is scheduled to hold an open debate on piracy as a threat to international peace and security. The meeting is called under the auspices of India’s current presidency. Earlier this month, the Council already approved the extension of the UN-AU joint military mission in Somalia (AMISOM) until March 2013, in another effort to provide continuity in security and governance to the current state authorities. Yet, the Council failed to reach an agreement on the funding of a maritime component for AMISOM. The Council also received the latest 3-montlhy report of the Sanctions Committee for Somalia. The briefing included an update on requests received by the Committee for exemptions to the on-going arms embargo on Somalia. It appears that calls by the African Union for a partial lifting of the arms embargo to strengthen Somalia’s poorly equipped military were so far unsuccessful.

Nigerian Troops Attached to AMISOM on Patrol in Mogadishu – Press TV

The upcoming debate will review the most recent UN Secretary General efforts to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden region, contained in his latest report on this matter. The report covers the most important activities relevant to the fight against piracy launched by or in cooperation with the UN following the Council’s Resolution 2020 last year. These include the progress in prosecution, detention and transfer of convicted pirates, the activity of the main UN bodies and of the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia, naval patrolling and anti-piracy capacity building in the region as well as a number of international conferences. Throughout the year, we have covered these issues here, here and here.

Interestingly, the report takes quite a direct stance on the impact of illegal fishing and illegal dumping toward piracy:

64.  Some observers continue to argue that illegal dumping of toxic waste and illegal fishing off the coast of Somalia is one of the factors responsible for forcing Somali youths to resort to piracy and attack foreign vessels because such activities deprive them from engaging in gainful employment opportunities. However, the United Nations has received little evidence to date to justify such claims. Most pirate attacks have been carried out against large merchant vessels several hundred nautical miles off the coast of Somalia.

65.  As for the dumping of toxic waste on land and at sea, while this may have occurred a few years ago in the waters off the coast of Somalia, there is no evidence of such activities currently. Concerns about the protection of the marine environment and resources should not be allowed to mask the true nature of piracy off the coast of Somalia, which is a transnational criminal enterprise driven primarily by the opportunity for financial gain.

The possibility for a specialized judicial structure solely devoted to investigate and prosecute piracy cases is also still gaining some momentum. The report refers to the initiative by Qatar for the establishment of a “special court for piracy” in the Gulf State (para. 42). As a first step, a delegation from UNODC and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia visited Qatar last September for detailed discussions with the Qatari authorities. Additional initiatives pertain to a possible direct involvement of the UN in anti-piracy policing activities. The Asian Shipowners’ Forum called for the establishment of a multinational anti-piracy military task force under the auspices of the UN that could be deployed, a sort of UN Peacekeeping Vessel Protection Detachment on board of merchant ships (para. 43). These developments are not ripe for further exploration in the Secretary General report, but they raise fascinating preliminary legal issues. For instance, on the jurisdiction of special criminal fora, rule of law enforcement and the immunity of peacekeepers in connection with the prevention and punishment of universal jurisdiction crimes, that are worth considering for discussion in the near future.

Unused Pirate Skiffs in the Somali Town of Hobyo – AP

The most updated figures show a significant drop of both attempted and successful piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the larger Indian Ocean area, speaking volume of the regional, international, government-lead as well as the private industry’s efforts in combating piracy. With the end of the monsoon season and the possible risk of disengagement by the international community as Somalia continues its current path of democratization, the jury is still out on how effective these efforts have been and what, if any, the pirates’ next move will be. These concerns are addressed in the report, which also recalls the need to add focus on land-based solutions to piracy:

74.  The recent gains made by the international community in its collective fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia are encouraging. However, although there are signs of progress, they can be easily reversed. Until the root causes of piracy, namely, instability, lawlessness and a lack of effective governance in Somalia, are addressed, counter-piracy efforts must not be minimized. In particular, ongoing efforts to build the rule of law and livelihood opportunities ashore should be intensified.

75.  A significant gap still exists in land-based programmes in Somalia to address piracy. This is primarily owing to the lack of security on the ground and lack of sufficient funding to support capacity-building and alternative livelihoods. An ever greater emphasis must now be placed on providing focused assistance to States in the region and to authorities in Somalia to build their capacity to deal with the institutional and operational challenges to governance, the rule of law, maritime law enforcement and security, and economic growth. In addition, counter-piracy actions should run alongside a concerted effort to rebuild the civil structures and institutions of Somalia in close cooperation with the Somali authorities and civil society.

76.  The successful end of the political transition in Somalia should act as a catalyst to address the root causes of piracy. I encourage the new Government to develop a comprehensive national counter-piracy strategy, working closely with the regional administrations and neighbouring States. This should include efforts to facilitate the development of skills necessary to earn sustainable incomes in such sectors as agriculture, livestock, fisheries and industry. I also call upon the Somali authorities to adopt appropriate counter-piracy legislation without further delay to ensure the effective prosecution of individuals suspected of piracy and to facilitate the transfer of prosecuted individuals elsewhere to Somalia. The new Government should proclaim an exclusive economic zone off the Somali coast in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

77.  Although pirates’ proceeds decreased significantly in 2012 owing to a lower number of executed attacks, militias and parallel illicit activities sponsored by pirate money will continue to pose a threat to the stability and security of Somalia. It is imperative that pressure on Somali pirates and their business model be maintained.

The current lull in piracy activity in Somalia is, however, matched by a growing rise of violent robbery-style pirate attacks in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, often connected with other illicit activities of a transmaritime and transnational nature. The Security Council already held an open debate on piracy in West Africa in October 2011. For the first time, the upcoming debate within the Security Council will provide the opportunity for a joint and integrated discussion on piracy in both East and West Africa. Hopefully, it will also be capable to provide for an opportunity to confront these differing realities, identify their root causes and peculiarities and, most importantly, share the relevant lessons learned on the ground so far. We will closely follow the debate and report on its achievements, or failures, as soon as possible.

Weekly Piracy Review: Costs & Sentencing

As reported here, in October pirates off the coast of Somalia fired at a small boat deployed from the HNLMS Rotterdam as part of its routine patrolling operations. After the ensuing fire-fight and rescue operation, the fishing boat’s captain revealed that he and his crew, along with their ship, had been hijacked off the coast of Oman several weeks earlier. The captain identified six of the people rescued from the water after the fishing boat caught fire as the pirates who took them hostage. Four of those men are now set to be prosecuted for their acts of piracy in Dutch court, as the marines they fired at from the Rotterdam were from the Netherlands. The two remaining suspected pirates were released, as they are minors. Two pirates and six of the original crew-members from the hijacked boat were wounded in this altercation, and one crew-member was killed. Two of the crew from the fishing boat are reportedly missing at this time.

Fifteen pirates were sentenced in the Republic of Seychelles on November 5 after being convicted for acts of piracy in attacking a merchant ship and abducting thirteen Iranian fishermen. The US praised Seychelles for their leadership in prosecuting those suspected of piracy, and reported that there have now been 631 convictions against pirates worldwide, with 98 of those coming from Seychelles. Additionally, 440 suspected pirates are currently facing justice in 21 countries.

After being held by Somali pirates since they were captured last November, two Seychelles fishermen were released early this week. The office of the President in Seychelles confirmed that after extensive effort and negotiations the two hostages had been released. A Somali pirate allegedly reported that a $3 million ransom was paid for their release, but this has not been confirmed. Since February 2009, pirates have hijacked five Seychelles boats, and eleven hostages have been kidnapped and subsequently released.

The Australian Navy sent its newly constructed warship on a 12,000 mile detour around Africa in order to avoid the possibility of being attacked by pirates while travelling through the dangerous waters in the Gulf of Aden. Though it likely would have taken about two weeks and $2 million less for the ship to make its journey from Spain to Australia through the Suez canal, the danger of encountering pirates on that route outweighed concerns regarding the time and expense of moving the ship to Australia. Other options were considered to thwart the possibility of pirate attacks, including sending a Navy frigate alongside the other ship and placing armed mercenaries onboard, but it was decided that the most effective method would simply be to take a safer route. That these measures were considered necessary is a clear indication that the cost of piracy is quite high.

Thursday marked the opening of a two-day Maritime and Coastal Security Africa conference in Cape Town, South Africa. A primary goal of this conference is to discuss better approaches to enhancing cooperation among different nations in the counter-piracy efforts being carried out. This concern arises due to the fact that nearly all African countries are major exporters of oil, and as such there are a large number of merchant vessels carrying valuable cargo all around Africa. These ships are attractive targets for pirates seeking to commandeer the cargo or hijack these ships and their crew for ransom, so the need to police these waters is ever-present.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, as of October 27, there have been 252 attacks and 26 hijackings so far in 2012. There have been 71 incidents, 31 successful hijackings, and 212 hostages taken by Somali pirates. Currently, Somali pirates are reportedly holding nine vessels and 154 hostages.

Piracy Takes Center Stage at UN Security Council

Indian ambassador to the UN Hardeep Singh Puri, who assumed the month-long presidency of the UN Security Council, interacts with the media after convening an emergency meeting on Syria, in New York. Source: PTI Photo

As noted by Christine, India has assumed the month-long presidency of the UN Security Council and has brought piracy to the center of the debate. As the Security Council Report points out this is the first time that piracy has been addressed as a thematic issue as opposed to in a state or regional discussion.

Key Issues

A key issue for the Council is how to strengthen the international response to piracy as a global threat to international peace and security.

Another issue is what lessons can be learned from the experiences gained so far at the regional level that may be applied universally.  These experiences cover areas such as effective coordination and cooperation mechanisms, preventive measures taken by the shipping industry (which include the use of privately contracted armed security personnel on ships), strengthening legal frameworks to ensure accountability for acts of piracy, capacity-building for states in the affected regions and addressing the root causes of piracy. A related issue is the difference across regions in the way pirates operate and the capacity of regional states to take effective action.

There also seems to be growing recognition of the human cost of piracy as an issue deserving more attention, including how to ensure assistance to hostages and their families.

Options

The main option for the Council is to adopt a presidential statement that would call for strengthened international action against piracy based on some of the experiences already gained and mechanisms in place. Such a statement could also ask the Secretary-General for a report on piracy at the global level and recommendations for further action.

The framework adopted by the Security Council could form the basis for the further solidification of customary international law. While the Security Council has issued numerous resolutions regarding piracy off the coast of Somalia, it has been careful to disclaim any opinio juris in creating precedents that might contradict UNCLOS. A further strengthening of the UNCLOS framework, in addition to an elucidation of areas of ambiguity in the treaty would be welcome in light of continued acts of piracy off the coast of Somalia, in the Gulf of Guinea, in the Malacca Straight, and, potentially, in new areas where conditions are ripe for such criminality.