[Marta Bo is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Genova, Italy and a member of the Peace and Justice Initiative. She wrote this post while she was a Visiting Fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law]
Over the past few years, several proposals have been made to put an end to the culture of impunity persisting among Somali pirates. The use of international adjudicative mechanisms – such as an international piracy court, or the International Criminal Court with an amendment to its ratione materiae jurisdiction – has been proposed (United Nations Secretary General Report of 26 July 2010) and, also, defended by several scholars. These instruments are typical expressions of a direct system of adjudication that has been conceived exclusively for the prosecution of international crimes stricto sensu (genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression). Although these options seem now to be displaced by more practical avenues for prosecution, such as specialized piracy chambers within national jurisdictions of Regional states (ex plurimis, R. Geiß and A. Petrig, Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea, 2011, 184), they nonetheless deserve consideration in light of the existing fundamental differences between piracy and international crimes stricto sensu, otherwise called core crimes. A closer scrutiny of piracy and core crimes, may suggest that, not only practical matters, but also a different logic should underpin the legal discourse concerning possible judicial fora to prosecute piracy.
Piracy and core crimes are a good example of the juxtaposition of transnational crimes and international crimes. Piracy is often referred to as an international crime, and sometimes as the first international crime. However, this is misleading. Piracy is not directly criminalised under international law: customary law and the UNCLOS regime neither provide for individual criminal responsibility for piratical acts nor proscribe the piratical conduct. Article 101 of the UNCLOS merely defines the offence. Notwithstanding the fact that national courts may directly apply the UNCLOS definition when constitutional arrangements allow so, piracy generally needs to be criminalised domestically in order to be adjudicated upon by national courts. The UNCLOS primarily sets out an obligation for states to adopt the necessary national criminal law establishing individual criminal responsibility for the conduct. Therefore, the customary definition of piracy as mirrored in the UNCLOS provision (“This definition is generally, though not universally, accepted as having codified pre-existing customary international law”, see D. Guilfoyle, Piracy off Somalia: UN Security Council Resolution 1816 and IMO regional counter-piracy efforts, 57 I.C.L.Q. 690 (2008), 693) does not ordinarily constitute the basis for piracy prosecutions, but rather it is the municipal legislation which does. The Harvard Draft Convention, which is the basis for the UNCLOS piracy provisions, lends support to this argument. The theory behind the Draft Convention was that “piracy is not a crime by the law of nations” (Harvard Research Draft Convention on Piracy, 26 Am. J. Int’l L. Sup 739 1932, 760) and “pirates are not criminals by the law of nations” (Id., 756). The Harvard Researchers adopted the view that piracy constitutes a special ground of jurisdiction, “the basis of an extraordinary jurisdiction ” (Id., 760).
By contrast, core crimes are directly criminalised under international law. International norms directly prohibit these offences by virtue of norms directed at individuals. These norms create universal direct criminal responsibility for individuals under international law.
Crimes that international law directly criminalises and piracy, only indirectly criminalised under international law, differ, in particular, on the following points: i) state involvement as compared to de-nationalisation; and ii) an exceptional gravity that constitute a threat to the most important values of the international community (international element) as compared to a cross-border harm to interests common to all or a number of states (transnational element). From these different characterizations, it follows that…