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ICG Risk Blog - [ Maritime piracy versus maritime terrorism in the Seabourn Spirit hijacking episode, part 2 ]

Maritime piracy versus maritime terrorism in the Seabourn Spirit hijacking episode, part 2


Part 1

Whereas maritime piracy has an ancient tradition, maritime terrorism is recent. Maritime terrorism commenced not with the Achille Lauro in 1985 but in 1961 when Portuguese and Spanish rebels protesting the Franco (Spain) and Salazar (Portugal) regimes hijacked the Portuguese cruise liner, Santa Maria, in the Caribbean, ultimately releasing the vessel, passengers and crew without incident.

Piracy is "effectively the nautical equivalent of everyday crime" whom Phoenicians and Greeks offer the first recorded instances. Piracy is legally accepted as a universal crime, i.e., anyone committing piracy can be stopped and arrested by any nation, but the distinction between maritime piracy and maritime terrorism is a 19th century creation. US v. Brig. Malek, 1844, inferred that an act of piracy must be a crime of commercial purposes only. Piracy law did not shift until the 1958 Convention on the High Seas and the 1982 Law of the Sea. The Law of the Sea retained nearly identically the piracy clauses of the earlier Convention on the High Seas, enshrining the necessity of committing the acts "for private ends… on the high seas outside the jurisdiction of any state."

The Convention on the High Seas distinguished maritime piracy and maritime terrorism, in that "political terrorism is not committed for person gain, but to bring attention to a political goal" thus not covered under the Convention. After the PLF hijacked the Italian luxury liner, Achille Lauro, in 1985, murdering a passenger in the process which led to the terrorists being tried in Italian courts not for piracy but for murder and hijacking. The resulting 1992 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation strengthened the Law of the Sea as relates to any attempt to hijack a vessel, or commit a crime aboard a vessel, regardless of motive, should be prevented by the international community and that the perpetrators must be tried by the apprehending nation or extradited to one who will.

Unfortunately the signatories of the 1992 Convention are limited. The states most challenged by piracy are not signatories, e.g., Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, and Brazil. China is a signatory but accused of very problematic fulfillment of its Convention obligations. The IMB has stated that "pirates know that if they come into a Chinese port, they can get cooperation." Examples:

  • In 1995 the freighter, Anna Sierra, and its sugar cargo was taken to the Chinese port of Beihai "known for its lenient government and thriving market in stolen goods" with the intent "to transfer the sugar to a prearranged Chinese buyer." Discovered, China did not release the vessel yet set the pirates free while selling the cargo and demanding a dockage fee.
  • In 1998 the tanker, Petro Ranger, and its jet fuel cargo, was taken to Hainan where Chinese authorities accused the ship's owners of "collaborating with the pirates, later selling half the cargo retained as "evidence" and freeing the hijackers.

The Petro Ranger's captain noted that he was interviewed:

by both the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Public Security Bureau (PSB). He found that the PLA was concerned as to how the incident would look internationally and thus seemed more prone to react strongly against the pirates. The PSB on the other hand seemed more in the control of the local authorities who are almost certainly linked with the piracy business.

The UN takes little direct action against piracy, save for an annual Law of the Sea resolution containing obligatory clauses condemning piracy and encouraging all nations to sign the 1998 Rome Convention. What action is does take is through the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and even that is modest at best. Direct action has been the purvue of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

International Maritime Bureau (IMB)
Division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC)

International Maritime Organization (IMO)
UN organization responsible for monitoring maritime activities

28 Sep 05

Terrorism and the Travel Industry, Part 1 and Part 2
Moderator: David Unger; Panellists: Francesco Frangialli, Pedro Argüelles, Isabel Aguilera, William Fell, Victor Aguado
International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security
March 9, 2005

Topic Area B: Maritime Piracy
Harvard WorldMun 2003
Special Political Committee
March 2003

Shipping after the September 11th Attack: Preparedness Threat Scenarios and Security Measures
By Eivind Dale and André Kroneberg
Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute
May 15, 2002

Bandits in the Global Shipping Lanes
New York Times

Published: August 20, 2000
Fee archive
Free Mirror

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Terrorism Public  


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