Report From the Piracy Contact Group, Working Group 2, Meeting in Copenhagen

Private Security Guards

Cross-posted at international law girls.

In my capacity as an independent academic, as well as a representative of the prominent non-governmental organization, the Public International Law and Policy Group, I had the honor of attending the 12th meeting of the United Nations Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, Working Group 2, meeting in Copenhagen, on April 10-11.  I will take this opportunity to briefly summarize some of the key legal issues that were discussed in Copenhagen.

First, many nations seem to be moving in favor of authorizing the use of private security guards on board their merchant vessels.  The use of such private security guards is controversial, and many in the international community feel a general sense of discomfort any times states delegate their traditional duties to private entities.  Others have expressed the view that the use of private security guards on board merchant vessels should be allowed only under strictly delineated guidelines and rules on the use of force.  Contrary to popular belief, such guidelines and rules exist already.  Several International Maritime Organization Circulars provide guidance on matters related to the employment of private security personnel on board merchant vessels.  The Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO) has drafted and made publicly available a standard employment contract between a shipping company and private security providers.  BIMCO has also issued specific Guidance on the Rule of the Use of Force, which suggest under which circumstances private security personnel may use force, including lethal force, against suspected pirates.  The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) issued additional Guidance for private security personnel on board ships, as well as a pro forma contract.  Finally, the Montreux Document provides international law rules applicable to the conduct of private security providers during armed conflict.  Although this Document most likely does not apply to the Somali piracy context because of the absence of armed conflict, it nonetheless sheds light on the international community’s consensus regarding the international law responsibilities of private security providers, operating in a domain otherwise reserved to state powers.

In addition to the above-mentioned guidance, international treaty law provides rules regarding the master of a ship’s duties on the high seas, in a situation where a merchant vessel may be under attack by suspected pirates, regardless of the presence of private security contractors on board.  It is clear under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as well as under the SUA Convention that the master of a ship retains authority on board his or her vessel, that the master may order any private security personnel to cease using force against suspected pirates at any time, and that the delegation of power from the master to the private security personnel during a piracy incident is temporary.   The general sentiment in Copenhagen was that numerous existing guidelines, principles, and treaty law obligations apply to any use of private security personnel on board merchant vessels, and that states have plenty to work with when determining whether and how to authorize the use of private security on board their own vessels.

Second, states remain concerned with legal issues related to the treatment of juvenile pirates (I had previously reported on this issue from the last Working Group 2 meeting in September 2012).   In order to ensure that juvenile pirates are treated according to relevant human rights standards and practices, states have begun developing guidelines on the treatment of juvenile pirates.  Such guidelines include the necessity to segregate juvenile suspects from the general prison population, to provide educational and vocational opportunities for juveniles, and to generally rehabilitate them so that they re-enter society upon their release and engage in legal, as opposed to criminal, activities.  These proposed guidelines will remain the subject of future Working Group 2 meetings.

Third, states remain committed to the post-conviction transfer model: the idea that pirates, if they are successfully prosecuted and convicted in Kenya, the Seychelles, or Mauritius, will be transferred back to Somaliland or Puntland where they will serve their penal sentences.  This model is important for two reasons.  First, it relieves small capacity nations such as the Seychelles and Mauritius from having to detain convicted pirates for long period of time in their own prisons; prosecutorial nations can, under this model, accept more suspected pirates because they will not run out of detention space.  Second and more importantly, the post-conviction transfer model allows pirates to return home – although they will not be immediately freed upon re-entering their native land, they will presumably be reunited with their families through prison visits and return to their own communities after the end of their sentences.  Any post-conviction transfer requires the successful fulfillment of the following criteria: the applicant must be at least 18; he or she must waive any existing appeals (the sentence must be final); he or she must consent to the transfer; all relevant states, including the apprehending state, the transferring state, and the receiving state, must agree to the transfer.  As discussed in Copenhagen, the post-conviction transfer model has been used successfully thus far, and 59 pirates have been transferred to Somaliland and Puntland as of today.

Finally, states have expressed an important concern regarding hostages.  In many instances, pirate hostages spend months in captivity under very difficult conditions.  Once hostages are released, they may be confused, mentally or physically injured, and may have no meaningful way of returning to their home states.  Several states in Copenhagen expressed the view that it is important to create a hostage release program that would maintain contact with released hostages in order to enable them to successfully return to a normal life after captivity.

The work of Working Group 2 thus far has been outstanding.  It demonstrates that states can, through joint legal efforts and cooperation, contribute significantly to the global fight against Somali piracy.

Broadcast of Mekong Pirate’s Execution May Have Violated Chinese Law

You likely have heard about the execution of Naw Kham, the Mekong Pirate found guilty of killing 13 Chinese in the Golden Triangle. See our prior coverage here. The moments leading up to the execution were televised live in China, although the execution itself was not. Siweiluozi’s Blog points out this violates the spirit if not the letter of Chinese law meant to curb such public executions.

This prohibition was subsequently written into China’s Criminal Procedure Law, and the relevant Supreme People’s Court interpretation on implementation of the death penalty also prohibits “other acts that degrade the personality of criminals” (其他有辱罪犯人格的行为).

Siweiluozi’s Blog also points to a commentary in the Changjiang Daily, the official “organ” of the party in Wuhan, providing the following critique:

Perhaps it is not illegal in China to broadcast live as the condemned are transferred to the execution ground, but I still oppose broadcasting live. Before, China used to have so-called public sentencing rallies and parade bound criminals in the streets for public viewing. Now, live broadcast of the transfer is no different in any real sense and is even more repulsive. Why?
It is because the live broadcast voluntarily and consciously revived these kinds of backward, barbaric scenes lacking in any modern notion of rights or rule of law. The live broadcast even delivered these scenes right in front of your eyes, so that you didn’t even need to go out of doors or be in the streets: you could see the barbarity and backwardness from your own home. You could say, in other words, that this live broadcast was itself barbaric and backwards, displaying no progress at all.

One Step Closer to a Pirate Amnesty

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

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

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

Chinese Drones and Mekong Piracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTUS Denies Hearing of Piracy Cases

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

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

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

 

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