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Maritime Piracy – A Challenge to International Law


Maritime piracy is a considerable hazard to safety at sea. To put it in the most basic terms, maritime piracy is hijacking a ship in international waters which holds an extreme impact on maritime activity, ultimately affecting economic development of the respective countries. Safe, secure, and sustainable maritime transport facilities are the need of the hour as the problem has transformed from a mere transport concern to a transverse challenge having security overtones as a ship is regarded as the sovereign territory of a nation. The prevailing legal framework fails to combat this issue effectively, which in turn poses a critical problem to governments across the world as it has a tremendous impact on shipping, tourism, and intercontinental manufacturing. Although the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) contains provisions dealing with piracy, they are non-binding and are not all-inclusive of the multiple facets of this issue; other conventions dealing with piracy control include the 1982 LOS Convention and the 1988 SUA Convention, but none have the capacity to create a body of piracy law by itself. Piracy is a universal threat that, at present, requires advanced methodologies, laws, and organizations to tackle the number of problems that it poses on a global scale. 

From a broad perspective, piracy involves two distinctive offences- (1) hijacking, where the aim of the perpetrators is to steal the vessel or its contents, (2) kidnapping, where a payment is demanded by threatening the vessel and the crew on board. Any act of piracy carried out in the territorial waters of the particular State do not fall within the ambit of maritime piracy as provided under Article 101 of the UNCLOS, however, any State may claim jurisdiction over such acts given that it occurs outside of its internal waters. In the landmark judgment of The Case of the S.S. Lotus (France v. Turkey), the Permanent Court of International Justice quoted the principle of universal jurisdiction in cases of piracy and stated that it is an offence under international law and that pirates are “the enemy of the human race – hostis humani generis – that any country, in the interest of all can seize or punish”.

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Presently, in this world loaded with a myriad of technological advancements, maritime piracy has acquired a new shape. The age of globalization which promoted world trade on a huge scale also provided for increased economic opportunities to pirates to commit crimes in international waters. Such crimes are strategically planned by utilizing modern technology to easily access information about their target and other undisclosed data regarding the value of cargo and the shipping route of the entire journey to hijack the vessel. Although piracy had a dreadful impact over the last few decades, especially in places like Somalia, Nigeria and Southeast Asia, over time this grievous impact has only increased owing to the advancement in technology. 

Most extensively, piracy affects world trade and tourism. Countries affected by piracy have faced a decline in the field of tourism as tourists were concerned about their safety as security was at stake. It was found that maritime piracy drained about seven to twelve billion dollars per year from the international economy. Countries affected by piracy might also face a loss of revenue due to potential macroeconomic costs such as reduction in revenue from foreign investment, or a rise in the prices of goods from a commercial frame of reference, in which case other countries would also have an indirect impact by way of shipping costs. These shipping costs would be borne by consumers as shipping companies shift the same through indemnity clauses and insurance premiums. However, the most tragic impact of piracy is on human lives. Many victims have had the unfortunate experience of being held hostage by pirates, or in some extreme cases, faced death at their hands.

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Efforts to combat maritime piracy can only be effective when uniformity of law is established, which combat piracy internationally rather than regionally. Thus far, the problem has been addressed by way of conventions, treaties and bilateral agreements; these approaches have only limited the scope to systematically administer this field on a global level and have failed to keep up with evolving norms; moreover, States have either lost the ability to abide by these agreements or are not willing to do the same. Although piracy is a global issue, each State has its own laws to combat the problem; the UNCLOS does not categorize piracy as an international crime and it is left to the domestic laws of the State to prosecute piracy. Not every State has anti-piracy laws and of the States that do, they do not reflect the current realities. For instance, India has not adopted any new piracy codes since attaining Independence and continues to rely on British colonial laws on piracy. Due to these legal gaps, States, mariners, and the shipping industry are in a vulnerable position. Also, there is no centralized court on an international level to prosecute pirates for their offences. 


Since the UNCLOS has proved inefficient in dealing with modern piracy, it is high time a universal piracy law is developed in the international domain. To minimize the incidents of piracy is a necessity, in addition to its human and economic costs and implications on transport, trade, tourism and safety, and this can only be achieved when a change is initiated in the legal realm.

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Cite this article (The Bluebook 20th ed.)-

Jhanavi M, Maritime Piracy – A Challenge to International Law, Ex Gratia Law Journal, (March 6, 2021),

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Jhanavi M
Student - SASTRA Deemed to be University