Throughout history, piracy has changed, making it difficult to define in a legal perspective. At first, piracy was defined as an act against the state. Currently, the definition of piracy has become broad enough to include any act of violence in the high seas as long as it is for a private purpose. Under the perspective of law enforcement, the broad definition would lead to more criminalization of piracy and higher arrest rates. However, simply cracking down on piracy more may not be the answer to stopping it and may simply lead to more problems.
For example, one of the current issues with the legal definitions of maritime piracy is the inclusion of eco-protesters and activists.
As defined by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which broadens the term to make it more encompassing:
Piracy encompasses a) any illegal act of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passenger of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board of ship or aircraft; ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State; b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft; c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described.
d, p. 45)
The goal of eco-activist is to protect their waters from actions that would be detrimental to the environment. To achieve their goal, these activists have been known to take direct and forceful action on the high seas. Under the current definition by UNCLOS, these actions are considered piracy because they are a private group that is committing a violent act that is considered illegal.
Piracy used to be a type of robbery that happened out in open waters. However, the definition by UNCLOS no longer need those type of circumstances to occur in order for it to be considered maritime piracy. It only has to be violent act at sea “piracy does no longer necessarily require robbery at sea and, moreover, the act of violence does no longer necessarily require the animus furandi” (Dominelli, n.d, p. 45). So, even if the intent wasn’t to rob, the person committing the act can still be tried and convicted of piracy.
Organizations like the Sea Shepard Conservation Society (SSCS) are the ones who stand to be negatively impacted this the most. They are an organization that are “devoted to protect the marine environment, also by way of attacking and ramming ships” (Dominelli, n.d, p. 43). The SSCS are willing to go as far as sink ships they believe to be harming the marine environments and wildlife like the whales. The SSCS don’t see themselves as pirates, and the consider their actions necessary to protect the eco-system. Qualifying their actions of piracy gives precedence for a government such as Japan to retaliate against them for interfering with their whaling operation, “by calling the environmental interventionists ‘pirates’, the Ninth Circuit encourages the Japanese to retaliate with violence at sea against Sea shepherd for interfering with their whaling operations or seeking their prosecution as ‘pirates’ in Japan” (Dominelli, n.d, p. 50).
Piracy can impact people directly as well as indirectly. The victims are the people in the ships as well as people who are affect economically after having their goods stolen or destroyed. Piracy increases insecurities on traders and decrease international trade between certain countries, “from an economic point of view, maritime piracy affects international trade through an increased insecurity concerning the delivery of good” (Morabito & Sergi, 2018, pg. 257).
In direct contrast to UNCLOS, the IMB’s legal definition makes the distinction of including the intent or the actual act of stealing as well as other crimes, “an act of boarding or attempt to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with apparent intent or capability to use force in furtherance of that act” (Morabito & Sergi, 2018, pg. 257). Eco-protesters and activists would be perfectly safe under this definition considering that their intent isn’t to rob.
The definition by IMB allows for nations and organizations to focus on the more problematic actors of piracy. In recent years, piracy has grown into a major concern for the international community. It affects many mariners as well as negatively impacts shipping lanes which damages trade amongst nations. In Somalia alone, billions of dollars due to various kidnappings and hijacking, “as a consequence, millions of dollars are paid in ransom payments to pirates. Several researches estimated that, 2010, Somali piracy’s impact on the global economy was in the range of $7 to $12 billion” (Sergi & Morabito, 2016, pg. 935). Over recent years, piracy in Somalia has grown more violent. It is related to the increased difficulty of hijacking ships, forcing the pirates to be more aggressive and at some stages, piracy may be funding regional terror and instability.
Piracy disrupts international trade and hikes the cost of trade. As the world become more globalized the more crucial that world trade, and economies remain secure. That can’t happen under the threat of maritime piracy, “maritime piracy has recently evolved from a localized maritime transport concern into a cross-sectoral global challenge, with a range of important repercussions for the development prospects of affected regional economies as well as for global trade” (Sergi & Morabito, 2016, pg. 938).
To try and combat the issue pirates, private sector improved their defensive measures but has proven to be ineffective, “improvements in private sector defensive measure have not resulted in a greater effectiveness of the transit corridor in the Gulf of Aden over time either, because pirates have also changes their tactics in response” (Sergi & Morabito, 2016, pg. 938). This the issue of piracy something formidable.
Globalization intensifies the problem of maritime piracy as asymmetries are multiplied:
In the processes of globalization, the nation state is being increasingly transcended and considered inadequate as the basis for social analysis. Society and the nation state are becoming conceptually distinguishable. Moreover, the independence, sovereignty and autonomy of nation states are systematically undermined by external actors and supranational bodies. (Passas, 1999, pg. 406)
Asymmetries makes dealing with transnational crimes like maritime piracy harder. It increases the likelihood of corruption on the part of governments, “globalization reinforces inequalities of power and wealth both within nation states and among them. It maintains and intensifies global hierarchies of privilege, wealth and control” (Passas, 1999, pg. 406-407). Due to the interconnectedness of countries, the problem with piracy intensifies as it impacts more people and is harder to regulate because the perpetuators can hide more easily:
Piracy presents unique obstacles in collection of evidence. From a scene of crime perspective, in piracy cases the place of crime is a vessel, that may have moved on from the scene of the crime, and witnesses are sailors who can be hard to track. (Twyman-Ghoshal, 2013, pg. 12)
It is difficult to define piracy as it is always evolving. Different transnational organizations have their own legal definition for maritime piracy. Each one impacts people differently and may even be harmful for a person’s human rights like the eco-activists. Globalization increases asymmetries which multiplies the harm of piracy. It could be useful to have a universal definition of piracy that is encompassing enough to target the right people.