See Transnational crime .

The first precise attempt to codify piracy was in 1958 when the Convention on the High Seas was adopted in order to clarify the legal status of pirates and the competence to arrest pirates. These articles in the Convention on the High Seas have been incorporated into the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and have today become the definition of piracy under international law. That is, piracy according to the UNCLOS consists of all illegal acts of violence, detention, or any acts of plundering, committed for private ends on the High Seas or areas not under national jurisdiction.

Reference works

Haywood, R. and Spivak, R. , Maritime Piracy, 2012


Romi-Levin, R., Piracy at Sea : Bibliography, 2003

Periodicals and Serial Publications

Books and Articles

Alexander, Y. (ed.), Terror on the High Seas : From Piracy to Strategic Challenge, Santa Barbara, CA, etc. : Praeger Security International, 2009
Boon, K.E. (ed.), Terrorism : Documents of International and Local Control: Piracy and International Maritime Security, New York, NY, etc. : Oxford University Press, 2011
Guilfoyle, D., Shipping Interdiction and the Law of the Sea, Cambridge, etc. : Cambridge University Press, 2009
Heller-Roazen, D., The Enemy of All : Piracy and the Law of Nations, New York, NY : Zone Books, 2009
Kempe, M., Fluch der Weltmeere : Piraterie, Vülkerrecht und internationale Beziehungen 1500-1900, Frankfurt am Main, etc. : Campus Verlag, 2010
Lehr, P. (ed.), Violence at Sea : Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism, New York, NY, etc. : Routledge, 2007
Marley, D., Modern Piracy : a Reference Handbook, Santa Barbara, CA, etc. : ABC-CLIO, 2011
Murphy, M.N., Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money : Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World, London : Hurst, 2009
Payne, J.C., Piracy Today : Fighting Villainy on the High Seas, Dobbs Ferry, NY : Sheridan House, 2010
Petrig, A.. (ed.), Sea Piracy Law : Selected National Legal Frameworks and Regional Legislative Approaches = Droit de la piraterie maritime : cadres juridiques nationaux et approches legislatives regionales, Berlin : Duncker & Humblot, 2010
Young, A.J., Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia : History, Causes and Remedies, Singapore, etc. : Institute of Southeast Asian studies (ISEAS), etc., 2007


Arnauld, A. von, “Die moderne Piraterie und das Vülkerrecht”, in: 47 Archiv des Vülkerrechts (2009) 4, pp. 454-480
Bento, L., “Towards an International Law of Piracy Sui Generis : How the Dual Nature of Maritime Piracy Enables Piracy to Flourish”, in: 29 Berkeley Journal of International Law (2011) 2, pp. 399-455
Campbell, P., “A Modern History of the International Legal Definition of Piracy”, in: Piracy and Maritime Crime : Historical and Modern Case Studies, 2010, pp. 19-32
MacDorman, T.L., “Maritime Terrorism and the International Law of Boarding of Vessels at Sea : a Brief Assessment of the New Developments”, in: The Oceans in the Nuclear Age : Legacies and Risks, 2010, pp. 239-264
Treves, T., “Piracy, Law of the Sea, and Use of Force : Developments off the Coast of Somalia”, in: 20 European Journal of International Law (2009) 2, pp. 399-414


Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law , Piracy, by Ivan Shearer


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 10 December 1982, Part VII: High Seas, Article 101



Piracy: See also

More guides on International Criminal Law

International Criminal Law
Transnational crime

More guides on Transnational Crime

Human Trafficking



See Also

References and Further Reading

About the Author/s and Reviewer/s

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Introduction to Piracy

Piracy, in international law, the crime of robbery, or other act of violence for private ends, on the high seas or in the air above the seas, committed by the captain or crew of a ship or aircraft outside the normal jurisdiction of any nation, and without authority from any government. The persons who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates. International treaties and national legislation have sometimes applied the term piracy to attacks on the high seas authorized by a government, in violation of international law; to actions by insurgents acting for political purposes; or to violent acts on board a vessel under control of its officers. Such acts, however, are not regarded as piracy under the law of nations. Piracy is distinguished from privateering (see Privateer) in that the latter is authorized by a belligerent in time of war; privateering was legally abolished by the Declaration of Paris of 1856, but the United States and certain other nations did not assent to the declaration. See International Law.

Piracy is recognized as an offense against the law of nations. It is a crime not against any particular state, but against all humanity. The crime may be punished in the competent tribunal of any country in which the offender may be found, or carried, although the crime may have been committed on board a foreign vessel on the high seas. The essence of piracy is that the pirate has no valid commission from a sovereign state, or from an insurgent or belligerent government engaged in hostilities with a particular state. Pirates are regarded as common enemies of all people. In that nations have an equal interest in their apprehension and punishment, pirates may be lawfully captured on the high seas by the armed vessels of any state and brought within its territorial jurisdiction for trial in its tribunals.

Piracy is of ancient origin. The Phoenicians often combined piracy with more legitimate seafaring enterprise. From the 9th through the 11th century the Vikings terrorized western European coasts and waters. The Hanseatic League, formed in the 13th century, was created partially to provide mutual defense against northern pirates roaming the North and Baltic seas. Muslim rovers, meanwhile, scourged the Mediterrane
an Sea, commingling naval war on a large scale with thievery and the abduction of slaves. In the 17th century the English Channel swarmed with Algerian pirates, operating out of northern Africa; Algiers continued to be a piratical stronghold until well into the 19th century (see Barbary Coast; Corsair). The buccaneers (see Buccaneer) were pirates who, during the 16th and 17th centuries, preyed mainly on Spanish commerce with the Spanish American colonies. Piracy waned with the development of the steam engine and the growth of the British and American navies in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In municipal law, the term piracy has been extended to cover crimes other than those defined above, such as slave trading (see Slavery). An independent state has the power to regulate its own criminal code, and it may declare offenses to be piracy that are not so regarded by international law. These municipal laws can have binding force only in the jurisdiction creating them. Although similar regulations may be adopted by other states, in the absence of special agreement between two states, the officers of one may not arrest or punish subjects of the other for offenses committed beyond its jurisdiction. See also Smuggling.” (1)

Piracy in 2011

United States views on international law (based on the document “Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law”): In 2011, as this section discusses in detail below, the United States continued its active efforts to counter piracy off the coast of Somalia through various international initiatives and domestic prosecutions of individuals suspected of piracy and related offenses. On March 30, 2011, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro addressed the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the topic of U.S. approaches to counter-piracy. Assistant Secretary Shapiro’s remarks, excerpted below, are available in full at (internet link) state.gov/t/pm/rls/rm/159419.htm. Assistant Secretary Shapiro described current multilateral and U.S. efforts to counter piracy and called for further steps, including announcing the United States’ increased willingness to consider additional mechanisms, beyond national prosecutions, for punishing and deterring piracy.


Despite two years of international political and naval coordination, the problem is growing worse. Last year, 2010, witnessed the highest number of successful pirate attacks and hostages taken on record. And thus far 2011 is on track to be even higher. Close to 600 mariners from around the world are being held hostage in the region, some for as long as six months. Tragically, four Americans were brutally murdered by Somali pirates just last month.

The attacks are more ruthless, more violent and wider ranging. Hostages have been tortured and used as human shields and blowtorches have been used to open safe haven areas on ships in order to seize crews, and hold them for ransom. Pirates currently hold around 30 ships, most for ransom.

As international action has been taken to address the challenge, the pirates have responded. The way pirates operate has become more sophisticated. In recent months the use of mother ships—which are themselves pirated ships with hostage crews—has extended the pirates’ reach far beyond the Somali Basin. Mother ships launch and re-supply groups of pirates who use smaller, faster boats for attacks. They can carry dozens of pirates and tow many skiffs for multiple simultaneous attacks.


This has made pirates more difficult to interdict and more effective at operating in seasonal monsoons that previously restricted their activities. Somali pirates now operate in a total sea space of approximately 2.5 million square nautical miles, an increase from approximately 1 million square nautical miles two years ago. This increase makes it difficult for naval or law enforcement ships and other assets to reach the scene of a pirate attack quickly enough to disrupt an ongoing attack.

At Secretary Clinton’s direction, we are intensively reviewing the U.S. counter-piracy efforts to determine an even more energetic and comprehensive approach to respond to piracy in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean region. As we move forward, we are looking into many additional possible courses of action that seek to overcome the ongoing challenges of piracy.

In the near and mid-term, we plan to focus on several approaches that have the potential to significantly increase risks to the pirates while reducing by equal measure any potential rewards that they think they may gain. We are considering a broad range of options, from intensifying naval operations, to pursuing innovative approaches to prosecute and incarcerate pirates through innovative national and international approaches. Furthermore, we are looking at additional ways to more aggressively target those who organize, lead, and profit from piracy operations, including disrupting the financial networks that support them.

But before I go into depth on the U.S. way forward, let me discuss briefly the actions that are already underway.

More about the Issue

To address the problem, the United States has, from the beginning, adopted a multilateral approach. Piracy affects the international community as a whole and can only be effectively addressed through broad, coordinated, and comprehensive international efforts. In January 2009, we helped establish the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, which now includes over 60 nations as well as international and industry organizations, to help coordinate national and international counter-piracy policies and actions.

We have also developed an integrated multi-dimensional approach toward combating piracy that focuses on: security—through the projection of military power to defend commercial sector; and deterrence—through effective legal prosecution and incarceration.

I’ll now expand on each of these areas:

First, security. In an effort to prevent attacks, the United States established Combined Task Force 151—a multinational task force charged with conducting counter-piracy naval patrols in the region. The objective of this Combined Task Force is to secure freedom of navigation for the benefit of all nations. It operates in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia, covering an area of over one million square miles. In addition to this effort, we have a number of coordinated multi-national naval patrols off the Horn of Africa. NATO is engaging in Operation Ocean Shield, the European Union has Operation ATALANTA, and other national navies in the area conduct counter-piracy patrols as well. On any given day up to 30 vessels from as many as 20 nations are engaged in counter-piracy operations in the region, including countries new to these kinds of effort like China and Japan.

Piracy in 2011

United States views on international law (based on the document “Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law”): In addition, we have suggested consideration of a specialized piracy court or chamber to be established in one or more regional states. The international community is currently considering this idea, along with similar models that would combine international and domestic elements. These ideas are under discussion both in the United Nations Security Council and in the Contact Group.

It is also critical to continue to support and enhance the prosecution-related programs in the region that are already underway. And we continue to believe one of the most vital aspects remains Somalia’s long term ability to construct its own active and independent judicial system.

The second area we are considering is how to more effectively target financial flows from piracy, possibly by using approaches similar to the ones we use to target terrorists.

Somali piracy is an organized criminal enterprise, like a mafia or racketeering criminal organization. A key element of the U.S. overall counter-piracy approach is the di
sruption of piracy-related financial flows. We need to hit pirate supply lines—cutting them off at the source. A significant effort must be made to track where pirates get their fuel, supplies, ladders and outboard motors in Somalia and in other nearby countries and to explore means to disrupt this supply. Most importantly, we must focus on pirate leaders and financiers to deny them the means to benefit from ransom proceeds. They must be tracked and hunted by following the money that fuels their operations using all available information. This should include by tracing the money that fuels their operations with the same level of rigor and discipline we currently employ to combat other transnational organized crime.

More about Piracy

This is particularly critical, considering the recent uncorroborated open source reports of possible links, direct or indirect, between al-Shabaab in Somalia—specifically al-Shabaab-linked militia—and pirates. Al-Shabaab and the pirates operate largely in separate geographic areas and have drastically opposed ideologies. However, we have seen reports that al-Shabaab is receiving ad-hoc protection fees from pirate gangs working in the same area. Obviously, this is concerning. Let me be clear: while we have seen no evidence to date of direct ties between the two groups, it would not be uncommon for criminal gangs working in the same ungoverned space to share resources or pay kickbacks to one another.

Finally, it is time to explore additional means to map and disrupt the financial flows and criminal masterminds behind the business of piracy before any links are solidified or money is put into the pockets of a group responsible for terrorist attacks. At the beginning of March, the United States hosted a meeting of Contact Group members at which the international community began discussing the development of methods to detect, track, disrupt, and interdict illicit financial transactions connected to piracy and the criminal networks that finance piracy. As we make progress and pirate leaders are identified, we should press local authorities in the piracy-affected region to take action against these leaders and either prosecute them or turn them over to other states for prosecution. Piracy is impacting Americans’, Africans’, and others’ lives around the world, and we should devote resources commensurate to the problem.

The third area we are exploring for increased action involves additional ways to work with the U.S. Department of Defense colleagues to take further action at sea, focusing on steps that would have real impacts on pirate activity without overextending the U.S. military. For its part, the United States Navy is already taking proactive measures to remove pirate boats from action when they can do so without unduly risking human life or unnecessarily expending scare resources. Just last week, U.S. naval forces successfully answered a Philippine-flagged merchant vessel’s distress call as pirates attempted to board. U.S. forces, already in the area as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, fired warning shots, causing the pirates to flee and foiling the attack. As American assets were already on the scene, the U.S. military was ready and able to respond without stretching the U.S. armed forces too thin.


We at the State Department need to continue to work with the U.S. DoD colleagues to explore using other tools at the U.S. disposal to further disrupt pirate vessels at sea. Of course, we must always act in a fashion that does not cause the situation on land in Somalia to worsen.

Fourth and finally, we must intensify the U.S. efforts to encourage commercial vessels to adopt best management practices. The best defense against piracy is vigilance on the part of the maritime industry. The vast majority of successful pirate attacks are against ships that do not adopt best management practices. The U.S. government requires U.S.-flagged vessels sailing in designated high-risk waters to take additional security measures, including having extra lookouts, having extra communications equipment, and being prepared at all times to evade or resist pirate boarding. I would note that, to date, not a single ship employing armed guards has been successfully pirated.


Combating piracy is not just the job of governments. It requires joint action from both the international community and the private sector. If all commercial fleets worldwide were to implement the measures as appropriate, we would be in a much better position to reduce the rate of successful pirate attacks. the U.S. partners in the maritime industry must continue to step up and take further action to do their part.

Piracy in 2011

United States views on international law (based on the document “Digest of U.S. Practice in International Law”): For discussion of U.S. piracy prosecutions in 2011, see information on International Criminal Law in this legal Encyclopedia.B.8.


Overview of Piracy in relation to cyber crime: [1]There are many legal ramifications of piracy, ranging from civil liability to federal prosecution. Federal statutes have long prohibited the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works for personal gain. Under the 1996 No Electronic Theft Act (NET Act), U.S. copyright law was broadened to allow for the civil and criminal prosecution of persons engaged in unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works without a profit motive as well. The NET Act altered the definition of financial gain to include bartering and trading of media, and facilitated the prosecution of members of ”warez” groups as participants in a criminal enterprise (NET Act, 1997).

Piracy in 2013

United States views on international law [1] in relation to Piracy: See Chapter 3.B.6.


Embracing mainstream international law, this section on piracy explores the context, history and effect of the area of the law covered here.


In relation to the international law practice and Piracy in this world legal Encyclopedia, please see the following section:

International Criminal Law

About this subject:

International Crimes


See Also

  • Territorial Regimes And Related Issues
  • Law Of The Sea
  • Boundary Issues
  • Piracy


See Also

  • International Criminal Law
  • International Crimes
  • Piracy


Further Reading

  • The entry “piracy” in the Parry and Grant Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law (currently, the Encyclopaedic Dictionary of International Law, 2009), Oxford University Press



  1. Piracy in the Digest of United States Practice in International Law


Notes and References

1. By Neel Sampat

See Also

  • Types of Cybercrime
  • Cybercriminal

Further Reading

Bennett, H. (2003). Understanding CD-R & CD-RW. Cupertino, CA: Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA); Kravets, D. (2007, October 4). RIAA jury finds Minnesota woman liable for piracy, awards 2,000. Retrieved October 5, 2007, from Wired.com: https://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2007/10/ riaa-jury-finds.html; MPAA. (2005). Internet piracy [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved October 13, 2007, from (internet link) mpaa.org/piracy_internet.asp; The United States No Electronic Theft (NET) Act. (1997). (H.R. 2265) 17 U.S.C. and 18 U.S.C.


Notes and References

Guide to Piracy

Hierarchical Display of Piracy

Law > Criminal law > Offence > Crime against property
Social Qu
> Social affairs > Social problem > Crime


Concept of Piracy

See the dictionary definition of Piracy.

Characteristics of Piracy

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Translation of Piracy

Thesaurus of Piracy

Law > Criminal law > Offence > Crime against property > Piracy
Social Questions > Social affairs > Social problem > Crime > Piracy

See also

  • Hijacking of an aircraft
  • Hijacking of a ship
  • Air piracy
  • Hijacker
  • Piracy of the seas