Piracy: centuries-old crime cast in new light

22 October 2014 by Karina Hof

For centuries, states have invoked universal jurisdiction to prosecute piracy in local courts. Yet the past few years have seen a change in tide, with more countries essentially outsourcing piracy cases to specially set up courts in Mauritius, Kenya and Seychelles. Five days before the start of UAE Counter-Piracy Week 2014 in Dubai, Michael Scharf, interim dean at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and chair of the Public International Law and Policy Group’s piracy working group, takes stock of recent perspectives on piracy. 

How do you see the current state of piracy?

Michael Scharf: There is a widespread belief that the international community has won the war on piracy. Although the world has seen a temporary downturn in Somali piracy in the past two years, the problem is likely to soon grow much worse as the international community begins to draw down its anti-pirate armada off the east coast of Africa in order to reposition those military assets for the fight against ISIS [self-proclaimed Islamic State] in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, piracy is proliferating to Africa’s west coast, transforming the threat into a two-ocean challenge.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy and global leaders, like the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), are vocal about the issue. Why, then, do we lack international consensus on what constitutes piracy and how to prosecute it?

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