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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Piracy and the Law
Modern Piracy Ė part 2
By Cindy Vallar

Efforts to stem piracy began during ancient times in Crete, Athens, and the island of Rhodes.  The Rhodians were the first to include piracy in their maritime laws.  During the Middle Ages, pirates were one of several thorns in trade between countries.  To address this and other issues northern cities in Germany and German merchants in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, England, and the Baltic banded together to form the Hanseatic League.  Eventually, some countries established admiralty courts to enforce maritime laws.  To Sir Charles Hedges, a judge of the British Admiralty Court during the late 1600s, pirates were robbers who seized a ship and/or its cargo through violent means upon the sea.  In spite of these legal attempts to deal with piracy, though, an internationally accepted definition of piracy didnít exist prior to 1958.

Article 15 of the 1958 Geneva Convention of the High Seas and Article 101 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea define piracy as a violent seizure on the high seas of a private ship or the illegal detainment of persons or property aboard said ship for the purpose of private gain.  Seems simple, but in reality there are problems with this definition.  First, it limits piracy to crimes committed against private property or citizens.  Second, the act must occur in international waters.  Third, greed must be the motivating factor behind the crime.

What the law fails to address are acts of piracy committed: by governments, within territorial waters, for political purposes.  For example, in 1997 the Libra Buenos Aires was at anchor in Rio de Janeiroís harbor.  Around midnight, ten armed pirates boarded the cargo ship and threatened to kill the crew.  They beat the shipís master until he opened the safe, then they searched the cabins for valuables and stole some cargo.  Although authorities were notified and help was requested, none arrived.  That same year the Petrobulk Racer anchored off Jakarta.  A small boat approached the tankerís bow.  While the crew kept watch on it, a lone pirate boarded the vessel elsewhere and held a knife against an officerís neck while his fellow pirates came aboard.  When another crewmember sounded an alarm, the pirates jumped ship.  It was the third time that year that pirates had targeted the tanker while in Jakarta.

Another example occurs when armed men and/or women seize a ship for purposes other than financial gain.  They do so to further some political agenda as in the case of the Achille Lauro in October 1985 when Palestinian guerrillas hijacked the Italian cruise ship while in Egyptian territorial waters.  They demanded the release of 50 countrymen held by the Israelis before they would release the hostages.  This made them terrorists rather than pirates, and they were eventually convicted of offenses related to the hijacking and murder of an American passenger rather than acts of piracy.

Nor can a government commit an act of piracy.  The deed may be done for financial purposes, but governments are not private citizens.  One nation that seems to condone such acts is China.  In 1994, uniformed men in boats bearing governmental markings seized the Alicia Star in international waters, alleging she was involved in smuggling.  When the ship reached port, they confiscated the cargo and held the crew captive until the owners paid a steep fine.  Two years later, patrol boats carrying members of the Somali military armed with automatic rifles stopped a tugboat also in international waters.  They took the master and first officer as hostages, and stole $10,000 and some supplies.  In 1999 members of the Somali Salvation Democratic Front used a speedboat to take four hostages from a yacht.  They held the German tourists in a village until a $50,000 ransom was paid.  Militiamen also seized an Italian fishing boat, demanding payment of a $500,000 fine before they released the ship and its crew of 33.

Before 1958, a nationís borders extended three nautical miles beyond its shoreline.  Since then, that limit was extended a further nine miles.  That means that if a crime occurs within that twelve-mile limitation, then legally it is NOT an act of piracy.  Some countries, like the United States, have national laws against piracy or the crime may fall under a different classification such as murder, kidnapping, or robbery.  Since most acts of piracy today occur within territorial waters rather than the high seas, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) would like to see the legal definition of piracy broadened.  The boarding of any ship, whether to steal or commit some other crime, and the actual or implied use of force by the perpetrators would constitute an act of piracy.  The International Maritime Organization (IMO) also seeks to solve the jurisdictional problem by focusing on the danger to navigational safety rather than the location of the crime.  The 1988 Rome Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation prevents pirates from seeking sanctuary in countries whose judicial system is ill equipped to prosecute them and forces nations to institute laws against piracy.  So far only 43 countries have ratified it.

© 2000 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 3 of this series on Modern Piracy


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