Popular culture has led us to believe that all pirates have a covered eye and a reliable parrot that creates terror on the high seas. However, it is not the accessories that make a person a pirate, but the actions they take are what national and international laws define as piracy.
Acts of piracy have been recorded, in part, by history since at least the times of the ancient Romans and the ancient Greeks. However, the world enjoyed a decline in piracy after the so-called «Golden Age of Piracy» that took place in the 16th and 17th centuries. However, in recent years, the world has suffered from a resurgence of piracy on the high seas.
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How is Piracy Defined?
Not all kidnappings or acts of terror at sea are defined as piracy. National and international laws, different organizations, define piracy in different ways. Two commonly accepted definitions of piracy include those set by the International Maritime Bureau and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The International Maritime Bureau, which is part of the International Chamber of Commerce, does not have the power to create mandatory laws, but provides guidance to countries on safety at sea. The International Maritime Bureau outlines very specific criteria that an act must meet in order to be considered an act of piracy. Those criteria include:
- Pirates must board another vessel;
- Pirates must intend to steal or commit another crime; and
- Pirates must have the intent or ability to use force to commit the crime for which they boarded the vessel;
The definition provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is similar and defines piracy, in part, as any act that:
- It is illegal and is committed by private individuals on private ships. Actions must be directed against another vessel on the high seas or any waterway outside the jurisdiction of a sovereign nation.
It should be noted that while most countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States has chosen not to ratify it.
It is important to recognize that most definitions of piracy, including those provided above, require that:
- Pirates must have their own ship nearby and involved in their actions (without this requirement, the crime of boarding a ship to commit a crime is considered kidnapping and not piracy);
- Pirates commit or intend to commit illegal acts; and
- Pirates must act for private purposes and not for political purposes or on behalf of a nation.
United States Law
U.S. law permits the punishment of a crime of piracy as that term is defined in the «law of nations. Federal Law, 18 U.S.C. Section 1651, provides that anyone in the United States found to have committed a crime of piracy, as defined by the law of nations, shall be imprisoned for life. The law does not define which law should apply when a person is tried for the crime of piracy. However, any actions that meet the elements described can be considered pirates by the U.S. Court.
Today, pirates exist in places other than Hollywood and the imagination of children. The pirates that currently exist on the world waterways are subject to anti-piracy laws set by international groups and sovereign nations so that, together, as a global community, the problem of piracy can be attacked.
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This article is intended to be useful and informative. But legal issues can become complicated and stressful. A qualified maritime lawyer can attend to your particular legal needs, explain the law and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact a qualified maritime lawyer near you to discuss your specific legal situation.