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.

Kiobel Oral Argument: Piracy May Spell Trouble for Shell

The Supreme Court opened up its October term with a healthy dose of international law in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell. The petitioner, Esther Kiobel, is bringing suit against Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) alleging that the oil company aided and abetted the Nigerian government in committing gross human rights violations in the oil rich Ogoni region of Nigeria.

This is the second time this year that the Court has heard Paul Hoffman’s arguments in favor of the plaintiffs and Kathleen Sullivan’s arguments on behalf of Shell, and maritime piracy played a role in both rounds of arguments.

The first round of Kiobel oral arguments considered whether the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) could be applied to corporations as well as natural persons. There, Justice Breyer evoked the concept of “Pirates, Incorporated” to inquire into whether an in rem action against an 18th century pirate could be foreclosed because “Pirates, Inc.” rather than the individual pirate, owned the property at issue.

The United States Supreme Court

In the second round of oral arguments, held yesterday morning, the issue had changed from whether the ATS can be applied to corporations to whether it can be applied extraterritorially. Despite this change of focus, maritime piracy played an even more important substantive role in the second iteration of the Kiobel arguments than the first.

Piracy first came up when Justice Scalia asked Royal Dutch Shell’s attorney, Kathleen Sullivan, whether she believed – as Scalia thought she “must” – that the ATS applied to high seas conduct. She did not. Ms. Sullivan then quickly tried to turn her argument to the Marbois incident concerning an assault on a French diplomat.

But Chief Justice Roberts immediately raised the question of piracy again, noting that “it was the most clear violation of an international norm” at the time of the ATS’s passage.

Ms. Sullivan again attempted to minimize her high seas argument, noting that even if the justices concluded that the ATS reached high seas conduct, it does not extend into the territory of another state. However, she doubled down when she argued that Sosa v. Alvarez-Machain – the last ATS case heard by the Supreme Court – does not foreclose the possibility that the ATS’s reach stops at the high seas, as that opinion stated that piracy might be an area covered by the statute.

Despite her repeated attempts to stray away the issue of piracy, the oldest international crime came up again and again, including in the context of Filartiga v. Peña-Irala, where the Second Circuit held that, “[f]or the purposes of civil liability, the torturer has become – like the pirate and slave trader before him – an enemy of all mankind.”

As Shell’s attorney, Ms. Sullivan wished to steer clear of the issue of maritime piracy for several reasons. The first is that the Supreme Court explicitly found that the First Congress meant to include piracy as one of three torts available to 18th century ATS plaintiffs. The Supreme Court would likely be reluctant to admit that it was wrong less than a decade after Sosa was handed down.

Second, foreclosing ATS claims that occur on the high seas is the furthest possible extension of the respondents’ argument, one that the majority need not adopt to reach the respondents’ desired verdict.

Finally – and this may have been what Justice Scalia was getting at when he initially posed the question – it is difficult to find an example of an American law that applies on the high seas but not on foreign soil.[1] The presumption against extraterritoriality is purely a creature of Congressional intent, and it seems that Congress rarely distinguishes between the high seas and foreign soil when considering a statute’s extraterritoriality.

If the conservatives on the Supreme Court find the argument that ATS application on the high seas and on another country’s soil rises and falls together persuasive, there is enough historical evidence that the ATS was meant to apply to piracy that more newly-minted universal violations could ride on piracy’s coattails and allow for extraterritorial application of the ATS.

The effect such an opinion would have on pending litigation over a high seas requirement for facilitators of piracy is better saved for another day.


[1] Depending on the ultimate outcome of pending litigation, a notable exception to this general rule could be, however ironically, 18 USC § 1651, the statute criminalizing piracy.

Negotiator Sentenced to Multiple Life Terms – SCOTUS on the horizon

Defendant Mohamed Salid Shibin appears in court

As we previously discussed here and here, Mohammad Saaili Shibin has been convicted for his role as a pirate negotiator in two separate incidents. During the trial, there was evidence that the hostages were tortured, but Shibin’s main role was to negotiate a ransom payment. Shibin has now been sentenced to 12 life terms and his attorney has promised to appeal. Two issues could lead to overturning Shibin’s convictions and might soon reach the Supreme Court.

First, Shibin’s attorney has stated that piracy can only occur if someone commits robbery at sea. In other words, the issue is whether piracy under the 18 USC 1651 (which incorporates the law of nations) is an evolving or a static concept. If it is a static concept, then a robbery was necessary to complete the offence. Since Shibin never boarded the hijacked yacht, he did not commit a robbery and his conviction for piracy, the basis for the life terms, could not stand. If, however, piracy is an evolving concept, then the UNCLOS definition would prevail and, because it does not require a robbery, Shibin’s conviction would stand.

Shibin’s appeal will first be heard by a 3-judge panel of the 4th Circuit. Another panel of the same court has ruled, in U.S. v. Abdi Wali Dire, that piracy is an evolving concept. A petition for rehearing was subsequently denied in that case, and the defence is filing an appeal with the US Supreme Court. Shibin could appeal the same issue to the 4th Circuit and might win if a different panel hears the case. However, if his appeal is denied, which is likely, he will have to take the case to the US Supreme Court as well.

The second issue that might result in overturning his convictions is whether Shibin’s actions in Somali territory can constitute piracy under the law of nations. The Federal Court in the DC Circuit recently held, in U.S. v. Ali, that the international crime of piracy can only be committed on the high seas. Therefore, negotiating a ransom for pirated hostages on land or within a state’s territorial waters does not constitute piracy. There is a healthy debate as to the correctness of this decision. See here and here. Nonetheless, it appears that Shibin only boarded the pirated vessel in Somali territorial waters. The U.S. Attorney prosecuting Shibin said that Shibin was a hostage negotiator operating from within Somalia, and it is reported that Shibin only boarded the pirated ship after it entered Somali waters.Therefore, if the Ali-rationale were applied in Shibin’s appeal, his convictions would be overturned. Even though Shibin did not appear to make this particular argument at trial, if it is determined that piracy under the law of nations does not include actions from Somali territory, universal jurisdiction would not permit the U.S. to pursue this prosecution. Therefore, this is a jurisdictional issue that can be raised for the first time on appeal.

Members of Ogoni Community interested by Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell Source: Amnesty International

There you have it: two issues that could invalidate Shibin’s convictions. Either or both of these issues could reach the Supreme Court, perhaps not in Shibin’s case, but possibly in U.S. v. Dire. The justices may be inclined to grant certiorari as a rhetorical counterpoint to Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell which is on the court’s docket for the next term and will require the court to interpret the statutory language “the law of nations” as part of the Alien Tort Statute. The piracy cases might be helpful to those who would argue that universal jurisdiction only applies to those offenses originally contemplated and discussed by the First Congress (when the piracy law and the Alien Tort Statute were passed). According to this view, piracy would satisfy the requirement, but relatively newer crimes such as crimes against humanity would not.