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: Expanded Territory

Map of attempted (yellow) and successful (red) attacks in 2012

Recent trends indicate that piracy around Somalia and in the Gulf of Aiden is becoming less prevalent. Through September of this year Somali pirates have reportedly carried out 70 attacks, down from 199 in the same period of 2011. These attacks are becoming less successful as well – in 2011 about one in three attempted raids were successful, while now the figure is closer to about one in 20. Armed guards onboard ships, the presence of patrolling warships in the region, and onboard security measures such as barbed wire are among the efforts credited with this decrease in piracy. However, agencies such as the International Maritime Bureau continue to warn against complacency, pointing out that Somali pirates alone still hold 11 ships and 167 crew members hostage. More than 20 of those hostages have been under the control of their captors for over 30 months. The IMB also reports that it calculates the global cost of piracy was $12 billion in 2010, which is a clear indication that continued efforts to impede the ability of these criminals in carrying out acts of piracy is essential moving forward.

Along with this decrease in pirate activity off of East Africa, there is a growing threat in West Africa around the Gulf of Guinea. As the international community has put an increased effort into protecting merchant ships in other hot-spots, the threat of maritime piracy is spreading farther and affecting areas previously thought to be fairly safe. Specifically, reported attacks have more than doubled off of West Africa so far this year from those reported in 2011. Oil production is growing in countries such as Nigeria, and as a result shipping traffic is increasing, creating a new “market” for those seeking to hijack boats and seize cargo for profit. Since August at least three large tankers have been attacked, and about 10,000 tons of oil have been robbed from those ships. Up until recently it was considered relatively safe for large ships to anchor for days at a time and carry out ship-to-ship transfers near Ivory Coast, but recent attacks there indicate that the reach of maritime piracy is spreading quickly.Though prior attacks have often focused on holding a ship and its crew hostage for ransom, these goal in these recent incidents appears to be the appropriation of oil to be sold on the black market. The more widespread area in which attacks have occurred, and the fact that many have taken place much further out to sea than in the past, shows that these are sophisticated pirates with access to larger ships, greater resources, and information on ship movement.

Over the weekend the Nigerian Navy and the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) met to strengthen efforts under a memorandum signed a few years ago outlining the need for counter-piracy measures. The meeting was prompted after a presidential directive to end illegal activities (specifically maritime piracy and sea robbery) in Nigeria was handed down. The hope is to more effectively police the waters around Nigeria through increased cooperation and resource-sharing between the two agencies.

On Monday senior officials from the US, India, and Japan met for the third time to formally discuss strategies for combating piracy and bolstering maritime security. The three agreed to increase efforts in combating piracy through greater cooperation.

India took over the rotating Presidency of the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) this week. Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s Representative to the UNSC, has already indicated that India will use its post to seek a “comprehensive anti-piracy strategy to tackle the maritime menace.” Maritime piracy clearly presents a significant challenge to the international community and its effects are felt especially strongly in India and the surrounding region, so Puri intends to cultivate debate on the topic of how the UNSC will address piracy as an international crime.

Private or Pirate Navy?

Puntland Marine Police Forces source:Somaliareport.com

The autonomous region of Puntland in Somalia has gotten a bad rap for being a hotbed for pirates. Though unrecognized as a state, there has been some international expectation that Puntland should take steps to prevent and punish acts of piracy, particularly those originating from within Puntland. In this regard, there have been efforts to create a Puntland coastguard or Navy (the “Puntland Maritime Police Force”), bankrolled by the United Arab Emirates and with training from private security firms. This is where the story of Sterling Corporate Services takes off. The New York Times reports:

Concerned about the impact of piracy on commercial shipping in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates has sought to take the lead in battling Somali pirates, both overtly and in secret by bankrolling operations like Sterling’s.

[…]

A United Nations investigative group described the effort by a company based in Dubai called Sterling Corporate Services to create the force as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the arms embargo in place on Somalia

[…]

Sterling has portrayed its operation as a bold private-sector attempt to battle the scourge of piracy where governments were failing.

Somalia Report notes that the UN effectively shut down the estimated $50 million per year program by threatening sanctions against UAE for violations of the Somalia arms embargo. In addition to the illegal shipments of arms, the program may have been a criminal pirate enterprise.

A Private Navy?

There is an argument that private navies are legally permissible under the law of the sea, particularly the legal regime governing anti-piracy operations on the high seas. Such navies are permissible if the navy is “on government service and authorized to that effect” pursuant to Article 107 of UNCLOS. The idea here is that a government may hire private companies to engage in police functions so long as it is made explicitly clear by markings and identification that the ship is controlled by the government and under a presumably military chain of command. It has been argued that ships on government service could not only provide self-defence to an escorted ship but could also engage in pirate hunting. Alternatively, if a private navy is not on government service but limits its actions to those justified by individual (as opposed to sovereign) self-defence, it may also be legally permissible. Here, aggressive acts would be strictly limited to those necessary to repel an attack, as is consistent with general principles of the law of self-defence. It would not include acts intended to prevent future attacks.

This is where the status of Puntland as an autonomous region becomes important. Though the international community has chosen to engage the Puntland government, it has chosen not to recognize Puntland’s sovereignty instead deferring to the project of solidifying the new Somali Federal Government in Mogadishu. Therefore, naval vessels patrolling the territorial waters of Somalia off of the coast of the autonomous region of Puntland are not “on government service” for purposes of Article 107 of UNCLOS.

Alternatively, there is some evidence that other states may have supported the Puntland Navy:

American officials have said publicly that they never endorsed the creation of the private army, but it is unclear if Sterling had tacit support from parts of the United States government. For instance, the investigative group reported in July that the counterpiracy force shared some of the same facilities as the Puntland Intelligence Service, a spy organization answering to Puntland’s president, Abdirahman Farole, that has been trained by C.I.A. officers and contractors for more than a decade.

Even if this is the case, the Puntland naval vessels are not “clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service” by a recognized sovereign such as the United States or the UAE. Therefore, seizing pirates on the high seas would not be justified pursuant to Article 107 of UNCLOS.

A Pirate Navy?

This raises the question of whether an act of violence by the Puntland Navy against another ship on the high seas constitutes piracy. Although there is some continuing debate as to the “private ends” requirements in Article 101 of UNCLOS, the better view is that it excludes from the definition of piracy, acts of violence by a sovereign. As Puntland is not a sovereign power, this exclusion from the definition of piracy does not apply. Therefore, acts of violence, detention or depredation committed by a Puntland Navy on the high seas (even if purportedly for the purpose of protecting the territory and people of Puntland) would constitute acts of piracy.

As noted above, the other possible justification for the seizure of pirate vessels on the high seas by the Puntland Navy is the doctrine of personal self-defence. This would justify acts strictly necessary to repel an ongoing attack. It would not justify acts of violence against suspected pirate vessels prior to an attack. Nor would it justify acts within the typical mandate of a sovereign navy or coast guard, including patrolling waters and interdicting ships.

The International community was displeased that Sterling was training these individuals because it was an apparent violation of the arms embargo imposed on Somalia. But, technically, Puntland’s Navy may have also been engaged in acts of piracy.

Territorial Waters

The Puntland Navy was also likely conducting operations within Somalia’s territorial waters which are part of the sovereign territory of the Somali Federal Government. The latter has the exclusive right to protect its territorial waters and to restrict traffic through this zone (See e.g. Article 25 UNCLOS “Rights of protection of the coastal State”), although a number of Security Council Resolutions have given foreign sovereigns some powers of interdiction in these waters as an exceptional measure. It is theoretically possible that the Somali Federal Government would attempt to delegate this coast guard function to an autonomous region’s forces such as the Puntland Navy. But it is unclear if this would be permissible pursuant to international law or whether Puntland would be willing to act on behalf of the Somali Federal Government, as opposed to under its own asserted authority as a sovereign.

Free Agents

The more practical question, now that the funding for Puntland’s Navy has disappeared, is what will happen to the individuals who were trained by Sterling. The New York Times reports:

With the South African trainers gone, the African Union has turned to a different security contractor, Bancroft Global Development, based in Washington, to assess whether the pirate hunters in Puntland can be assimilated into the stew of other security forces in Somalia sanctioned both by the United States and the African Union. Among those groups are a 10,000-man Somali national army and troops of Somalia’s National Security Agency, based in Mogadishu, which is closely allied with the C.I.A.

[…]

But with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.

Weekly Piracy Review: International Cooperation

This week the 8th Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting convened in New Delhi. Defense Minister A.K. Antony asserted India’s commitment to bolstering security against a myriad of threats in the Indian Ocean, and specifically addressed the continued need for anti-piracy efforts. Antony emphasized the need for cooperation among countries to implement international laws in the region in order to combat the ever-changing effects of problems such as maritime piracy.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) began a maritime forum in Manila on Wednesday, and is scheduled to run through today. Topics for discussion included maritime security and piracy. In addition to discussion regarding territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea, the members are likely considering an initiative proposed by the Philippines to facilitate information exchange and sharing among nations. The hope is that this exchange will provide timely information to allow law enforcement agencies to effectively combat security threats such as piracy.

The Indian government authorized training of Navy Special Forces to deploy Marine Commando squads on merchant ships. These squads will be authorized to carry long-range weapons, and will travel with ships in the Indian Ocean extending to the sea around Somalia in an effort to alleviate piracy concerns. Currently merchant ships in the area rely on private security companies to prevent successful piracy efforts in taking hostages and seizing cargo. So far the reliance on private security guards has been effective, as no ship with armed guards has been successfully hijacked. This situation is by no means perfect, as the level of training and experience of these private guards is widely varied, and can lead to uncertainty and nervousness when the guards are thrust into a hostile situation. As India begins to allow trained military on-board merchant vessels it shall be seen whether this will be an effective approach.