Liability for the Destruction of Suspected Pirate Skiffs?

In one of their latest reported joint anti-piracy operation, EUNAVFOR and Combined Task Force 151 announced the disruption of potential piracy attacks off the Somali coast. In November 2012, the Romanian frigate ROS Regele Ferdinand, under EUNAVFOR command, and Turkish warship TCG Gemlik, of Combined Task Force 151, apprehended nine suspected pirates at sea off the coast of Somalia. Earlier, a Swedish EUNAVFOR maritime patrol aircraft located the skiff at 420 nautical miles east of Mogadishu, an area known for pirate activities. At the scene, the TGC Gemlik sent a boarding team to intercept and search the suspected vessel, which for over an hour tried to evade capture. The suspected pirates were then embarked onto the ROS Regele Ferdinand for futher questioning and evidence collection to assess the possibility of their prosecution. No fishing supplies were found on board, while it remains unclear whether the suspects were armed. Shortly after their apprehension, the suspected pirates were released onto a Somali beach for lack of sufficient evidence to proceed to their prosecution. According to EUNAVFOR, despite the strong suspicion that it was a pirate boat, it was determined that there was not sufficient evidence to build a case and prosecute the suspected pirates, as they were not caught actually committing any crime. In additon, building a case against the suspects would be too time-consuming and onerous.

German frigate Hamburg sinks an abandoned skiff off the coast of Somalia. Credit: Christian Bundeswehr - Reuters

German frigate Hamburg sinks an abandoned skiff off the coast of SomaliaCredit: Christian Bundeswehr – Reuters

However, their skiff and other effects on board, including fuel and ladders, were instead destroyed. According to EUNAVFOR, this will prevent the suspected pirates from using the skiff to attack ships in the future. By means of example, this incident, by no means uncommon, raises the question of the diffferent evidentiary grounds and standards of proof for the prosecution of suspected pirates and the destruction of boats and equipment belonging to them. While the destruction of a pirate vessel can prevent the perpetration of further piracy attacks, the sinking of a fishing boat, however small, might put a strain to the fishermen’s livelihoods. Article 106 of UNCLOS (and Article 110(3)) provides for the possible liability for any loss or damange caused by the seizure of a suspected pirate ship when effected without adequate grounds.

Liability for seizure without adequate grounds

Where the seizure of a ship or aircraft on suspicion of piracy has been effected without adequate grounds, the State making the seizure shall be liable to the State the nationality of which is possessed by the ship or aircraft for any loss or damage caused by the seizure.

What are the grounds for the seizure and destruction of suspected pirate vessels and how do these differ from those provided for the arrest and prosecution of suspected pirates? In this regard, the legal framework applicable to the contrast to piracy, particularly in Somalia, needs some additional clarification and interpretation. UNCLOS explicitly provides only for a right of visit when there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that a ship is engaged in piracy (Article 110) and for a right of hot pursuit of a ship into the high seas only when there are good reasons to believe that a violation was committed (Article 111). The SUA Convention, its additional protocol, as well as the Djibouti Code of Conduct also contain references to various evidentiary thresholds, mainly reiterating the principles above contained in UNCLOS relevant to cooperation, rights of visit and liability for loss or damage.

In its recent Resolution 2077 (2012), approved after a significant debate on piracy as a threat to international peace and security, the Security Council renewed its call to continue the fight against piracy, including through the disposition of boats and other relevant equipment for which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting their use in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea:

10. Renews its call upon States and regional organizations that have the capacity to do so, to take part in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, in particular, consistent with this resolution and international law, by deploying naval vessels, arms and military aircraft and through seizures and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, or for which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting such use;

Indeed, EUNAVFOR’s seizures or disposals of suspected pirate skiff are premised upon the standard of “reasonabile grounds to suspect” (see also here). How to interpret, therefore, this standard? Resolution 2077, issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, also makes various references to the need to ensure compliance with international law and more particularly, “applicable human rights law” and “due process of law in accordance with international standards” in the pursuit of accountability for suspected pirates (see also paras 16-18 and 20). A review of international human rights and criminal law, while concerning crimes of a different nature, might thus provide for futher guidance. Various standards exist and, admittedly, some differ from others by mere semantics. Article 58(1) of the ICC Statute, relevant to the issuing of a warrant of arrests, provides for the evidentiary threshold of “reasonable grounds to believe”. This is significantly different from the threshold required for the confirmation of charges against an individual under Article 61(7) of the same Statute (“substantial grounds to believe”) or, obviously, for a conviction under Article 66(3) (“beyond reasonable doubt”). “Reasonable grounds to believe” are also required before the ICTY for the submission of an indictment by the Prosecutor or in relation to contempt proceedings (Articles 47 and 77(c) of the ICTY Rules of Procedure, respectively). The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber equated the “reasonable grounds to believe” standard to the “reasonable suspicion” standard under Article 5(1)(c) of the European Convention on Human Rights. Arguably, this comparaison appears questionable. Believing is a concept stronger than suspecting. However, while also relevant to arrest and detention, the ECHR determined that this standard consists of the existence of facts and information which would satisfy an objective observer that the person concerned may have committed a crime. The procedure for the submission of an indictment before the ICTY provides the following description of the meaning of “reasonable grounds”:

Reasonable grounds point to such facts and circumstances as would justify a reasonable or ordinarily prudent man to believe that a suspect has committed a crime. To constitute reasonable grounds, facts must be such which are within the possession of the Prosecutor which raise a clear suspicion of the suspect being guilty of the crime. […] It is sufficient that the Prosecutor has acted with caution, impartiality and diligence as a reasonably prudent prosecutor would under the circumstances to ascertain the truth of his suspicions. It is not necessary that he has double checked every possible piece of evidence, or investigated the crime personally, or instituted an enquiry into any special matter. […] The evidence, therefore, need not be overly convincing or conclusive; it should be adequate or satisfactory to warrant the belief that the suspect has committed the crime. The expression “sufficient evidence” is thus not synonymous with “conclusive evidence” or “evidence beyond reasonable doubt.” (Review of the Indictment against Ivica Rajic, Decision of 29 August 1995, Case no. IT-95-12)

Given the limited role played by EUNAVFOR in the investigation and prosecution of piracy, perhaps reference to recent international commissions of inquiry, whose standards are generally lower than those of purely judicial institutions, might also provide for additional guidance. For instance, the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur acted upon a standard of “reliable body of material consistent with other verified circumstances, which tends to show that a person may reasonably be suspected of being involved in the commission of a crime” (para. 15).

Pirates or Fishermen? - Courtesy AP

Pirates or Fishermen? – Courtesy AP

Put plainly, the review above shows that a discrete amount of supporting evidence and the mere possibility, rather than the certainty, of the commission of a crime are therefore required to meet the “reasonable suspicion” standard encompassed in Resolution 2077 for the seizure and disposition of suspected pirate skiffs. It is, arguably, an extremely low standard but it demarcates the basic threshold for piracy-disruption activities. Suspecting the commission of a crime, however, falls a long way from having demonstrable proof. While this standard might also be akin to that required for the arrest of a suspected pirate, those necessary to proceed to his investigation and prosecution are increasingly higher and still depend upon factors such as the quantity and the quality of the evidence, as well as the willingness of State actors to proceed. Finally, several questions remain on the suitability and susceptibility of claims of unlawful destruction of vessels to be brought before Somali authorities when adequated grounds for such destruction are missing or in doubt.

Piracy off the Coast of California?

Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne, a Boatswain Mate onboard the Coast Guard Cutter Halibut, died early in the morning of Dec. 2, 2012 from injuries sustained during law enforcement operations near Santa Cruz Island, Calif. Source: US Coast Guard

Last week a member of the U.S. Coast Guard died when a vessel smuggling narcotics from Mexico hit the coast guard boat containing a boarding team, including the victim. The two Mexican nationals operating the smuggling vessel made their initial appearance in U.S. court last week. It appears that the collision occurred within U.S. territorial waters as it was “near Santa Cruz Island, off the coast of Santa Barbara.” The two could be charged with murder of a U.S. government officer 18 USC 1114 for which the death penalty is an available sentence. However, it has been reported that “drug and human trafficking off the [California] coast has grown into an elaborate, highly lucrative and increasingly dangerous operation, as smugglers venture farther out to sea and farther north along the coast in search of safe places to deliver their cargo undetected.” If such a collision were to occur on the High Seas, the Accused could also be charged with piracy for it would constitute an illegal act of violence for private ends between two vessels (UNCLOS Art. 101). It might also create conflicting jurisdictional claims between Mexico and the U.S. if the U.S. were intent on imposing the death penalty. Mexico could claim jurisdiction over the crime based on the perpetrators’ nationality whereas the U.S. could claim jurisdiction based on the victims’ nationality. For a similar jurisdictional conflict see the case of the Enrica Lexie. Conflicts over the imposition of the death penalty against Mexican nationals in the U.S. have been a point of contention between the two states, culminating in the case of Medellin v. Texas at the International Court of Justice which continues to reverberate in U.S. courts. That said, the growth of maritime drug smuggling off the coast of California, perhaps on the High Seas, could have worrying implications for interstate relations between the U.S. and Mexico.

UPDATE: Convictions in First Italy Piracy Trial

The 9 month-long piracy trial for the 2011 hijack of the Italian bulk carrier MV Montecristo, the first in Italian modern history, concluded last week in Rome with the conviction of all 9 Somali accused to prison terms of 16 and 19 years. We previously reported about this trial and Italy piracy laws here.

The accused were found guilty of attempted kidnapping for extortion and illegal possession of firearms. As the crime of kidnapping was only attempted, the maximum penalty range of 25 to 30 years of prison foreseen by the Italian criminal code was reduced by one third. During the trial, the accused unsuccessfully sought to be tried in the UK, in light of having been initially apprehended by UK forces, and challenged their transfer to Italian authorities. In accordance with Italian laws, the motivations for the verdict will be published within 3 months. All accused are likely to appeal the sentence, with some indicating to be ready to take the matter up to the European Court of Justice.

Interestingly, the prosecutors’ claim of the pirates connections with Al-Shabaab and the attack on the Montecristo being aimed at financing its terrorist activities and foster a campaign of obstruction of the free maritime transit in the Indian Ocean was rejected. Once again, this confirms the very tenuous links between the pirates’ business model and terrorism. In its latest report, the Monitoring Group on Somalia also found no evidence suggesting a structural or organizational link between Al-Shabaab and Somali pirate networks.

Another piracy trial will start on 4 December 2012, concerning the attempted hijack of the Italian oil tanker MV Valdarno on January 2012, off the Omani coast. The 11 Somalis charged with this attempted hijack opted for a plea bargain and are likely to receive a substantially reduced prison sentence.

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.