Annual Survey of International & Comparative Law


Customary international law prohibited piracy and treated pirates as enemies of human kind. Pirates were considered to have waged war not just against anyone state but all states. As such, pirates were subject to universal jurisdiction by any state. While the prohibition of piracy could, and was easily stated, the contours of the prohibition, including definition of pirates, were not free from controversy. Besides, pirates were not always universally condemned, but instead were sometimes tolerated and employed by states for their own selfish interests. A more important point, though, is that like the infamous slave trade, piracy was believed to have largely disappeared in modern times or at least to have fallen to levels that did not demand international attention. In fact, this was the reason initial attempts in the twentieth century to introduce a treaty regime against piracy was unsuccessful. The illusion that piracy was eradicated or, at least, reduced was shattered towards the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. According to the International Maritime Bureau, a total of 293 incidents of armed robbery and piracy against ships were reported in 2008 and many incidents are thought to go unreported. This marked an increase from the 263 incidents reported in 2007 and from the 239 reported in 2006. Today, the international community is bombarded, almost daily, with news reports of piratical incidents, especially in the waters off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. It must be noted, however, that owing to the chasm between the definitions of piracy under the prevailing international law regime and as understood by the International Chamber of Commerce's International Maritime Bureau, not every incident recorded by the latter would qualify as piracy under the former. Even making allowance for this disparity, it must be acknowledged that the ancient scourge of piracy is back on the rise and international law is taking notice.