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.

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.

Private Navies and Ships on Government Service

Blackwater’s failed venture – McArthur

Over the last few years, entrepreneurs and private insurers have floated a number of proposals for the creation of private security escorts (so-called “private navies”). These types of proposals address several pressing concerns. The international naval escorts, such as EUNAVFOR, provide protection to a limited number of ships. But waiting for a critical mass of ships to initiate a convoy at the entrance to the high-risk zone can be time-consuming and costly for shippers. Furthermore, international naval escorts can only provide an escort in the highest risk zones (e.g. the Gulf of Aden), leaving ships vulnerable to attack in other areas such as the vast Indian Ocean. Private security escorts promise to be available to individual ships throughout their journey in high-risk waters. Though the cost of such services could be significant, there is the promise of savings in insurance premiums.

In the past, the U.S. state department has expressed hightened concern with regard to private security escorts vis a vis private security guards on-board ships (the latter are now openly encouraged). What then governs the use of force by these private security escorts and under what circumstances is the use of force permissible pursuant to international law?  Three examples provide a useful backdrop to consider the legal issues. The answer, it turns out, will likely depend on whether private security escorts are “on government service” and whether in the circumstances of a particular encounter, they overstretch the concept of self-defence by engaging in pirate hunting.

Blackwater, the security contractor who ran into trouble in Iraq and Afghanistan, was one of the first companies to venture into the private security escort business. It purchased a retired naval vessel, the 183 foot McArthur and, in 2007, it offered its services as a counter-piracy escort vessel. Perhaps due to uncertainty regarding the legal issues, and Blackwater’s compromised reputation, it received no customers and soon left the counter-piracy business. Maybe it was just before its time as several additional ventures have been announced more recently.

In September 2010, it was reported that:

[A] leading London insurer is pushing ahead with radical proposals to create a private fleet of about 20 patrol boats crewed by armed guards to bolster the international military presence off the Somali coast. They would act as escorts and fast-response vessels for shipping passing through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.

Jardine Lloyd Thompson Group (JLT), which insures 14 per cent of the world’s commercial shipping fleet, said the unprecedented “private navy” would work under the direct control of the military with clear rules of engagement valid under international law. Early discussions have also been held with the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Transport and the Foreign Office. (emphasis added).

This particular venture would place the private security escort “on government service.” Article 107 of UNCLOS provides that a pirate boat may be seized by “other ships or aircraft clearly marked and identifiable as being on government service and authorized to that effect.” The idea here is the 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. However, the responsible government, in this case the U.K., would be taking a considerable risk in authorizing defensive as well as aggressive use of force.

Most recently, in November 2011, a company put forward a new proposal.

Convoy Escort Programme Ltd., backed by the marine insurance industry, will initially deploy seven former naval patrol boats, each with armed security teams of eight people on board, Angus Campbell, chief executive officer, said by phone from Swarland, England today. The bullet-proofed boats will charge about $30,000 per ship traveling in a convoy of around four vessels over three to four days, he said.

“We are going to be a deterrent,” Campbell said. “We are not in the business of looking for trouble but if anybody tries to attack a vessel we are escorting, our security teams will deploy force if they have to act in self defence.”

It was confirmed yesterday that this project has secured (paid subscription required) additional funding from private insurers and hopes to have boats on the water by the summer.

In contrast to the prior example, there is no indication that Convoy Escort Programme is being coordinated with regular naval forces. Therefore it is not “on government service.”  Although Article 107 of UNCLOS does not permit private security companies not on government service from engaging in pirate hunting, the general principle of self-defence, and defence of others, would justify protecting vessels from an on-going attack. Such conduct must be carefully circumscribed. The risk here is that private security personnel would, in the heat of battle, step outside of the orbit of “self-defence” and into the breach of pirate hunting.  For example, if personnel decide to chase down suspected pirate boats that have (1) not approached the vessel they are protecting or (2) approached the vessel and fled, the personnel may have overstepped what was strictly necessary to protect the vessel under attack. Furthermore, the absence of clear rules of engagement creates the real possibility of mistaken identity at sea. If these projects go ahead, pirates off the coast of Somalia will have to contend with more heavily-armed foes, but so will Somali and Yemeni fishermen who frequent these same waters.

The Enrica Lexie and Unintentional Terrorism

GUEST POST BY: Jon Bellish cross-posted at The View From Above.

An interesting exchange took place at the Kerala High Court on Friday between presiding Justice PS Gopinathan and VJ Matthew, counsel for the owner of the Enrica Lexie. Regardless of the level of significance one attributes to Justice Gopinathan’s remarks, the dialogue sheds light on the tension and deep mistrust surrounding the events of February 15th.

Mr. Matthews, representing Dolphin Tankers argued that the Italian marines had to be classified as terrorists in order for the India’s statute implementing the IMO’s SUA Convention (SUA Act)[1] to apply. In response, Justice Gopinathan said, “[t]he firing on Indian fishermen by two Italian marines- Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone-off the Kerala coast was an act of terrorism…As far as victims are concerned, their relatives are concerned, as far as Indians are concerned [the alleged shooting was] a terrorist act.”

To be fair, Justice Gopinathan did not declare the Italian marines terrorists as a matter of law. He merely stated that that is how the general public viewed them. It is nonetheless disturbing for an officer of an Indian High Court to give voice to his private opinion about the facts of a case before him, especially when that opinion deviates so far from reality.

Where Mr. Matthew’s claims are concerned, it is far from certain that the marines must be classified as terrorists for the SUA Act to apply. Although the SUA Convention was passed with the goal of suppressing international terrorism in mind,[2] the Convention seeks to achieve its aim by proscribing acts, not classes of people. Article 3 of the SUA Convention lists the crimes punishable under the Convention, stating that if “any person” “performs an act of violence against a person on board a ship if that act is likely to endanger the safe navigation of that ship,” that person has committed “an offense” under the Convention. Similarly, the SUA Act states that “whoever unlawfully and intentionally” commits an act of violence against a person on board a ship has violated the Act and is subject to punishment for that act under Indian law.[3]

The words “terror,” “terrorist,” or “terrorism” do not appear at all in the operative clauses of the SUA Convention, nor do they appear in any portion of India’s SUA Act. Thus Mr. Matthew’s argument that legal classification as a terrorist is a prerequisite to be charged under the SUA Act appears at odds with the text of the SUA Act itself and the Convention upon which it is based.

But Justice Gopinathan’s response to Mr. Matthew’s good faith legal claim was far more dubious than the claim itself. Rather than satisfying himself by pointing out that an individual need not be legally classified as a terrorist for the SUA Act to apply, Justice Gopinathan declared by fiat, and counter to all reason, that the Italian marines had indeed committed “an act of terrorism.”

Though some argue that there is simply no internationally recognized definition of terrorism,[4] Judge Antonio Cassese, presiding over the Appeals Chamber at Special Tribunal for Lebanon, announced last year that a definition of terrorism “has gradually emerged” in customary international law.[5] According to the STL, terrorism is defined under customary international law as consisting of the following three elements:

(i) the perpetration of a criminal act (such as murder, kidnapping, hostage-taking, arson, and so on), or threatening such an act; (ii) the intent to spread fear among the population (which would generally entail the creation of public danger) or directly or indirectly coerce a national or international authority to take some action, or to refrain from taking it; (iii) when the act involves a transnational element.

Of the three enumerated elements, only the third, that the act must involve a transnational element, is clearly present. As for the second, there is no way to argue that the Italian marines fired upon the Indian vessel to spread fear among the Indian population or coerce the Indian government. They were acting as agents of the Italian government charged with the protection of a merchant vessel from the real and credible threat of maritime piracy. The unfortunate deaths of two fishermen do not change the character of the marines’ actions. Finally, it is presently impossible to know whether the Italians’ acts could be considered “murder” under the first prong. That determination can only be made once a competent tribunal establishes that the Italians were in fact the ones who shot the Indians and entertains any affirmative claim of self-defense made by the marines.

Furthermore, the alleged acts of the marines fails to satisfy even the minimal, “core definition” of terrorism proposed by Professor Marcello Di Filippo in the European Journal of International Law.[6] After surveying relevant international and domestic laws and sloughing aside any contested definitional aspect of terrorism, Professor Di Filippo concludes that an act of terrorism requires, at the very least: (i) an act of violence; (ii) when that act is targeted at civilians.[7] According to Di Filippo, this core definition is the absolute minimum standard under which an act could be properly considered terrorism.

Implicit in Di Filippo’s core definition is the requirement that the actor must at least believe that the targets are civilians, and one could even argue that the actor must intend to target the victims because they are civilians. Thus unless the Indian authorities can prove, at minimum, that the Italians knew that the Indians were unarmed before firing upon them, the acts of the marines do not rise to the level of terrorism. Justice Gopinathan’s statement that the marines committed a “terrorist act” accuses the Italians of a crime that does not exist – negligent or reckless terrorism.

An oral pronouncement by a Justice with no legal ramifications is hardly a groundbreaking development in what will surely be an interesting case. It does illustrate the depth of mistrust between the Italians and Indians in this particular instance, with the Italians accusing the Indians of a vast conspiracy involving fabricated evidence and the Indians accusing the Italians of murder and now, apparently, terrorism. We are therefore back where we started: waiting for the results of the ballistics report and hoping, perhaps against the available evidence, that cooler heads will prevail and due process will be afforded to all.


[1] Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act, 2002

[2] The Preamble of the SUA Convention notes that the state parties are “DEEPLY CONCERNED about the world-wide escalation of acts of terrorism in all its forms.”

[3] The Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against Safety of Maritime Navigation and Fixed Platforms on Continental Shelf Act, 2002 Act No. 69 of 2002, art. 3(1)(a) (Dec. 20, 2002).

[4] Jean-Marc Sorel, Some Questions About Terrorism and the Fight Against its Financing, 14 Eur. J Int’l L. 365, 368 (2003) (describing the “confused mix” of definitions).

[5] Interlocutory Decision on the Applicable Law: Terrorism, Conspiracy, Homicide, Perpetration, Cumulative Charging, Case No. STL-11-01/I, at para. 83 (Feb. 16, 2011), available at http://www.stl-tsl.org/x/file/TheRegistry/Library/CaseFiles/chambers/20110216_STL-11-01_R176bis_F0010_AC_Interlocutory_Decision_Filed_EN.pdf

[6] Marcello Di Filippo, Terrorist Crimes and International Co-Operation: Critical Remarks on the Definition of Terrorism in the Category of International Crimes, 19 Eur. J. Int’l L. 533 (2008).

[7] Id. at 558-61.

The OTHER Anti-Piracy Legislation

There is a continuing debate over whether flag states should sanction the hiring of armed guards aboard commercial ships. There are significant financial risks associated with hiring Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs), including liability for damages to cargo and crew. As a Congressional Research Office report concluded in April 2011, “Some industry experts suggest that hiring armed security teams may be more expensive than taking the risk and paying the occasional ransom.” Nonetheless, there is a growing trend among flag states to permit the use of PMSCs on-board commercial ships. India and the UK paved the way, and a number of other states have indicated a willingness to accept such practices. Just today it was announced that the Philippines issued guidelines to permit armed security details.

Likely because of prior controversies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has been reluctant to embrace the use of PMSCs aboard marine vessels. Thus far, the U.S. has not publicly sanctioned the use of PMSCs, although some reports indicate that the U.S. State Department has privately encouraged the use of PMSCs in pirate hot spots. It is in this context that in November 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Piracy Suppression Act of 2011 (within H.R. 2838) which would require the Department of Transportation to train U.S. mariners in “standard rules for the use of force for self defense […] including instruction on firearm safety for crewmembers of vessels.” This suggests that mariners would be permitted to carry and use firearms in certain situations. The Bill would also require all U.S. flagged ships carrying goods belonging to the United States to be provided with armed personnel to be paid for by the U.S. government. The initial house bill was even more ambitious and would have permit the U.S. to seek reimbursement for U.S. military assistance to pirate victims from other states, as well as criminalize attempts to commit piracy. Interestingly, the Senate version of the Bill (S. 1665) omits all of these provisions. Therefore, if the Senate Bill passes, the Piracy Suppression Act is unlikely to become law. (The House tried to pass a similar bill in 2010 (H.R. 2647), but the Senate version did not include the armed security provisions and they failed.) It remains an open question whether the U.S. Congress will keep the Piracy Suppression Act within the bill. But the conditions may be different this time around as Congress considers the successful rescue of two aid workers in Somalia and the maritime world starts to coalesce around the view that sanctioning PMSCs is the most practical, immediate solution to counter piracy.