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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

Piracy and Terrorism at Sea

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Latika Nath

Piracy refers to a broad range of activities associated with violence on the seas. It is said to be the third oldest profession in the world. Terrorism often uses violence to bring about a change in society. The modern day pirates have left their mark on international maritime trade and changed our views on piracy. In recent times piracy has undergone a sea change and exponential growth. In the last few years the incidents of piracy at sea have greatly increased, with the warlords of Somalia going all out to prove that it pays huge dividends.

Maritime trade and commerce has contributed to the development of the shipping industry. In fact the quantum of trade has grown over the years. Of late pirtes have resorted to hijacking merchant vessels for extracting huge ransom, laying siege to merchant vessels and holding cargo and crew for such purposes has become the order of the day.


THE word piracy is derived from the Latin word ‘pirata’. Piracy is defined as any illegal act of violence or detention or any act of depredations committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or aircraft and directed on the high seas against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft. Also it may take place outside the jurisdiction of any state. Any acts of voluntary participation in such operations at sea constitute the act of piracy and also the vessel a pirate ship.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, “boarding a vessel with the intention to commit theft or any such crime” coupled with the use of force is piracy.

Historical Development

PIRACY has existed from Greek and Roman times. Many instances have been quoted; indeed Caesar was said to have been caught by pirates. During medieval times, the Vikings from the North often raided costal villages and were active on the seas.

In 14th century India, instances of piracy have been mentioned, dating back to the Vijayanagar and Bahamani kingdoms Thoroughbred horses were shipped to India from Persia and Africa. Often pirates raided these ships, near the Persian Gulf, which later came to be known as the ‘pirate coast’. Shipping of the British and later the East India Company was often disrupted by such attacks, close to the ports of Tripoli, Tunis and the ‘Barbary Coast’.

Modern Times

APPROXIMATELY more than thirteen to sixteen billion dollars of goods have been attacked by pirates. Last year the numbers of attacks on merchant vessels is said to have increased by 10 per cent from the previous year. The number of attacks this year has increased significantly. A precise estimate is not possible because a number of attacks go unreported. The International Maritime Organi-sation has documented and reported the various known attacks over the last few years.

Boarding, hijacking and stealing cargo and personal effects of the crew are associated with the act of piracy. However, a recent development is holding of the ship and crew to ransom. Somalia has been in the news as pirates operate from there attacking ships near the Gulf of Aden.

Operational Strategy

THE shipping industry is associated with large finances the world over. Maritime piracy is said to operate as a high profit and less interference business in recent times. The use of modern technologies and weapons has changed the concept of piracy as it occurred in earlier times. The use of modern communication systems, weapons and tactics at sea is indicative of how “tech savvy” they are in the planning and execution of operations at sea. A large amount gained by ransom is used to purchase boats and weapons from arms dealers, and to expand their activities.

The Somali warlords first attacked UN ships delivering food to Somalia. Now they have increased their area and scale of operations.

Fishermen who have knowledge of the seas, ex-militiamen and experts with technical expertise indulge in such acts of violence and terrorism at sea. The increasing number of attacks has affected sea trade. Insurers, manufacturers and owners of the ships are adversely affected. Insurance premiums are very high depending on the route of the ship. This in turn has increased the risk factor and put a strain on the owners and crew. Together, they pose serious problems for international shipping.

Because of such incidents of piracy and violence at sea, the Maritime Shipping Patrol Area was established. Many countries, including India, have called for international co-operation to combat piracy on the high seas.

NATO member-nations and the International Maritime Organisation have expressed serious concern. Some countries have dispatched forces to tackle the pirates and give security to merchant vessels. Recently the Indian Navy sank a pirate ship.

International Law

THE Tokyo, Hague and Montreal Conventions deal with the unlawful seizure of aircraft. They do not deal with piracy. It was widely held that piracy did not exist in the post-UN era barring incidents reported in the Far East, for example China, where smuggling, slave trade and other activities were associated with it. The United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty makes a mention of piracy. However, the activities reported off the coast of Somalia now pose a threat to the security of the region. The international community must focus their attention before the situation worsens. Pirates are enemies of mankind and must be dealt with according to law. Individual efforts by states cannot solve the problem, but only concerted international efforts can.

The Privy Council way back in 1934 dealt with piracy. In the well-known case Re-Piracy Jure Gentium, piracy was considered a crime not only against international law, but one which could be punished by any state. As such pirates can no longer expect the protection of their own state. Therefore a pirate is “hostis humani generic”, that is, beyond protection.

UN Efforts

THE alarming rise of the incidents of piracy the world over warranted the United Nations Security Council to take action in this regard. In October this year Security Council Resolution 1383 condemned and deplored all such acts of arms robbery at sea. All states interested in making efforts to combat piracy were called upon in this regard to take suitable action. Military aircraft and naval vessels were empowered to take suitable action to counter such attacks on merchant ships near the coast of Somalia. Further, they are empowered to take all steps to protect themselves. This was done at the instance of the International Maritime Bureau which brought such incidents of robbery and violence on the high seas to the notice of the UN.

Strategic Concerns

THE shipping industry accounts for 90 per cent of the world’s trade. Over 50,000 ships carry petroleum mineral ores and goods to various destinations around the world. Thirty per cent pass through the Suez, Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia to countries in the East and Far East. The coast of Somalia is an ideal location for pirates to commence their activities of attacking unarmed merchant vessels. The Transitional Federal Gover-nment of Somalia seems to be unable to stop these activities from taking place from their territorial waters. The Stolt Valor and the Sirius Star have been attacked recently with huge ransoms being asked (and paid); terrorism and violence on the high seas have become a lucrative proposition. If the situation is not controlled/eradicated in this part of the world, it may lead to adverse effects for the international community at large.


INTERNATIONAL trade and commerce would suffer with huge insurance premiums demanded by the insurers on account of such attacks. Irregular supply of goods would be the order of the day. The cost of goods would increase enormously. Military aircraft and armed vessels would need to be on constant patrol over a large stretch of the Indian Ocean.

This would pose serious consequences for India and other countries of the Indian Ocean. Militarisation of the Indian Ocean would become imminent. This would increase our security concerns in the region. Piracy and the use of force greatly increases our concerns for commerce and trade in this region.

Although way back in 1971 the UNGA passed a resolution designating the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, piracy plagues the region. In order to combat piracy naval ships, military aircraft, logistical supplies and other facilities would need to be stationed in the Indian Ocean. The zone of peace would turn into a war zone in the near future if acts of piracy go unchecked by the UN. The territories of the Chagos Archipelago and the American military base at Diego Garcia may assume a more significant role in the politics of the region. Combating piracy may mean further militarisation of the region. This would lead to conflict and regional rivalry in the Indian Ocean.

In the present context the UN needs to play an important role in mobilising the support of its members to combat piracy and terrorism at sea. A multinational force under UN Command would effectively foil the attacks by pirates. Further, it is necessary for the UN to call upon the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia to take all possible steps to stop organised crime and prevent the pirates from operating from their territory. International efforts are necessary to bring the pirates to justice. Expressing international concern is a step forward; the demand of the day is to combat and put an end to piracy and terrorism at sea.

Dr Latika Nath is a Reader, Department of Law, University Law College, Bangalore University, Bangalore.

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