Friday, December 05, 2008

Piracy Is Terrorism?

NYTimes | The solution to piracy lies in the very nature of piracy itself. The Roman lawmaker Cicero defined piracy as a crime against civilization itself, which English jurist Edward Coke famously rephrased as “hostis humani generis” — enemies of the human race. As such, they were enemies not of one state but of all states, and correspondingly all states shared in the burden of capturing them.

From this precept came the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, meaning that pirates — unlike any other criminals — could be captured wherever they were found, by anyone who found them. This recognition of piracy’s unique threat was the cornerstone of international law for more than 2,000 years.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from the current situation, the law is surprisingly clear. The definition of pirates as enemies of the human race is reaffirmed in British and American trial law and in numerous treaties.

As a customary international law (albeit one that has fallen out of use since the decline of traditional piracy) it cuts through the Gordian knot of individual states’ engagement rules. Pirates are not ordinary criminals. They are not enemy combatants. They are a hybrid, recognized as such for thousands of years, and can be seized at will by anyone, at any time, anywhere they are found.

And what of the Emden’s problem? Are pirates a species of terrorist? In short, yes. The same definition of pirates as hostis humani generis could also be applied to international organized terrorism. Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, “for private ends.”

For this reason, it seems sensible that the United States and the international community adopt a new, shared legal definition that would recognize the link between piracy and terrorism. This could take the form of an act of Congress or, more broadly, a new jurisdiction for piracy and terrorism cases at the International Criminal Court.
Given what we know about the origins and habits of the Somali pirates, I find this assertion starkly discomfiting.