Definition of Piracy

In United States of America Piracy is defined in 18 USC 1651 as “Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.”again 18 USC 1659 provides punishment for the following act of piracy (plundering a vessel):

English: Flag of pirate Edward England Polski:...

English: Flag of pirate Edward England Polski: Flaga pirata Edwarda England Deutsch: Flagge des Piraten Edward England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Whoever, upon the high seas or other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, by surprise or open force, maliciously attacks or sets upon any vessel belonging to another, with an intent unlawfully to plunder the same, or to despoil any owner thereof of any moneys, goods, or merchandise laden on board thereof, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

From the above definition, the expression ‘sets upon any vessel’ makes it clear that completion of Robbery is not a condition for committing the offense. Surprisingly Supreme Court of USA, in United States v. Palmer and United States v. Smith, interpreted that under  USA laws Piracy is an act of robbery at sea. Attempt to robbery was not considered to be an act of piracy. This definition is contrary to the definition of United Nation Convention on Laws on High Seas which defines the Piracy as under:

Article101

Definition of piracy

Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers 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 such 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 in subparagraph (a) or (b).

I could not find the original judgments but I am curious as to what shall be line of reasoning in the above referred Supreme Court Judgments, especially after the fact that definition of US Code refers to ‘laws of nations’ (portion underlined in first para above). It is unbelievable that this view persisted for two hundred years. Now the news is

200-year-old U.S. Supreme Court definition of piracy has been in dispute in two attacks on Virginia-based Navy ships in April 2010 in waters off East Africa. The defendants were prosecuted in Norfolk, the first in a series of government prosecutions aimed at slowing the spread of piracy off Africa. The court’s ruling gives prosecutors wider latitude to go after people who attack U.S. vessels, U.S. Attorney Neil MacBride said.

“For decades, the international community has considered violent attacks on the high seas as an act of piracy, and today’s ruling will strengthen our ability to hold those who attack U.S. vessels by force accountable, regardless of whether they are successful or not,” said MacBride, whose office handled both cases.

In one case, a lower court judge dismissed charges against five Somalis in an attack on the USS Ashland, ruling since the men had not taken control or robbed the ship their actions did not rise to the definition of piracy. The ruling sends that case back to U.S. District Court for trial, the government said.

In the other case, prosecutors convicted five Somali men who attacked the USS Nicholas. It was the first piracy conviction in a U.S. courtroom since 1819.

The ruling by the three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld those convictions and the life sentences the men received. (Source: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gNR82ffoaNIEx8eTuopX8Lt2YF-)A?docId=9f5726f9bfe24413bbec8fb5e86ff6fb)

No doubt that people do not easily trust courts. United nations came in existence over 50 years ago. I am curious, how something so obvious missed the courts since the United Nation Convention? It appears that USA is not signatory to the above UN convention as it may place its own military vessels on High Seas as pirates.

Would above view be upheld by superior courts? We have to wait.

© Sandeep Bhalla

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  1. Pingback: Public International Law - An Opusculam of Law and Justice

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