Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Focus On: Maritime Piracy and the Law

A series of spectacular attacks by Somali pirates over the last year has attracted enormous attention to the timeless, and now resurgent, problem of maritime piracy. For a time, the problem seemed limited to the waters off the Horn of Africa, but last month, pirates struck close to Oman in dramatic fashion. Armed with heavy weapons and night-vision capabilities, Somali pirates hijacked the German cargo ship MV Charelle 60 nautical miles off the coast of Sur. This attack was the first instance of Somali pirates seizing a ship outside of their normal area of operations.

The international attention is more than a passing fancy. Maritime piracy has had very real costs for shippers, as well as exporting countries and industries. The world has watched as pirates have hijacked vessels of increasing size and value, including a super-tanker carrying 2 million barrels of oil worth US$100 million. The total economic cost of maritime piracy has been estimated at over US$10 billion.

For a nation like Oman whose fortunes rest in part on a healthy shipping and export sector, security of shipping vessels and cargo is imperative. Perhaps the most significant determinant of security is how the law is used by both governments and private actors to combat and prevent maritime piracy.

International law creates a framework through which coordinated, collective action by states against maritime piracy is possible. Domestic civil law, on the other hand, provides a range of mechanisms through which businesses may protect their interests by taking preventative action.

The International Legal Response
The recent spike in attacks has sparked an unprecedented level of multinational anti-piracy activity; namely, the creation of an anti-piracy armada including ships from more than twenty countries. These joint patrols find legal authorization under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (the “U.N. Convention”). The United Nations Convention deals with the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans. Oman is a signatory to the U.N. Convention and ratified it in Royal Decree 67 of 1989. Recently, the U.N. Security Council has also issued a series of resolutions expanding the legal basis for the use of force on Somali pirates.

The result of this coordination has been, in the words of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, “one of the largest anti-piracy flotillas in modern history.”

This cooperation has included many Gulf nations, including Oman. On June 29, Omani naval commanders participated in a conference in Riyadh with representatives from eleven other Arab states in the Gulf and the Red Sea aimed at coordinating a regional response. Out of this meeting came decisions to establish a joint naval task force and strengthen naval forces in the region.

In addition to providing a framework for joint action, international law has helped direct the criminal prosecution of suspected pirates. In the 18th century, it was determined that maritime piracy constituted a universal crime that could be prosecuted in any jurisdiction, regardless of geographic connection to the criminal act, the defendant or the victim. This concept became known as “universal jurisdiction.”

While universal jurisdiction allows any nation to prosecute a maritime pirate, in practice, most nations are loathe to spend time or resources prosecuting and incarcerating pirates from far away lands for crimes widely considered to be beyond the deterrent effect of limited judicial prosecution.

As a result, interested nations have increasingly entered into bilateral agreements on the prosecution of suspected pirates. In recent months, Kenya has signed memorandums of understanding with the U.S., the European Union and Britain to prosecute suspected pirates in Kenya.

The Domestic Legal Response
In Oman, there have been concerns about more pirates crossing into the territorial waters of Oman. Territorial waters, as defined in the U.N. Convention, consist of the coastal waters extending no more than twelve nautical miles from Oman’s coasts. These territorial waters are regarded as the sovereign territory of Oman.

While international law plays a crucial role in organizing the governmental response to piracy, businesses and individuals in Oman may consider a preventative approach by looking to domestic laws to protect their interests.

Specifically, exporting industries and businesses involved in shipping will secure their goods and vessels through contracts with insurers and private security contractors. In that regard, private maritime security companies are considering the establishment of business operations in Oman.

War insurance may be desirable, as may ransom and kidnapping coverage. The Oman Maritime Law (Royal Decree 35 of 1981, as amended) states that certain war risks, which may include piracy, are not included in a policy unless it has been agreed otherwise between the insurer and the insured. Therefore, it would be important for those seeking war insurance coverage for piracy in Oman to clearly agree what events are covered.

Some may seek new physical deterrents to employ onboard their vessels, while others may prefer to hire armed escort vessels to repel would-be pirates.

In instances where shipments have been hijacked, private individuals will need to ensure that the payment of ransom does not run afoul of the law in any jurisdiction in which they operate. While it is not typically illegal to make a ransom payment, it is illegal in many jurisdictions to make payments to parties determined to be involved in acts of terrorism. Given the murky relationships between Somali pirates and terrorist organizations active in Somalia, it must be determined whether any relevant domestic anti-terrorism laws would be implicated in the payment of ransom.

The legal issues created by maritime piracy underscore the need for internationally experienced legal counsel. In under a decade, the 21st century has shown with alarming frequency that domestic concerns, such as instability in Somalia, can give rise to global problems as significant as maritime piracy.