What the Definition of Piracy Means for UNCLOS & ATS

Judge Kozinski has gotten considerable criticism from liberals for ruling that Sea Shepherd is involved in piracy under international law. A subsequent post will provide additional support for the decision on the merits. Here, I’d like to look at the big picture and suggest that liberals should be thanking Kozinski: a contrary ruling would have torpedoed two liberal causes – the U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea treaty, and a broad construction of the Alien Tort Statute.

A ruling that politically motivated attacks are exempt from piracy would certainly add weight to conservative skepticism of the Law of the Sea Treaty. The root of this skepticism is a concern that the meaning of international legal instruments is actually quite uncertain, and unforeseen vagaries will later be used against the U.S., which will have no monopoly on interpreting the law that applies to it. The retort is that such fears are paranoid; the treaty is clear, by now well-worn, and pretty harmless.

Well if the piracy provisions – which have not been the ones causing conservative anxiety – are actually highly disputed in their meaning on basic definitional points, there may be more to worry about than previously thought. Lets say the meaning of “private ends” is in fact undefined, with both interpretations open. The U.S.’s ability to treat maritime terrorists as international pirates will thus probably depend on what a bunch of professors and European foreign ministry lawyers say “private ends” means.

Again, if this is true of piracy – which has been in the Treaty for sixty years, and in international law for hundreds, imagine what other unplumbed surprises lay in the UNCLOS’s depths. Why by a pig in a poke? One cam imagine the fun at Senate hearings on UNCLOS after terrorists are ruled immune from piracy, or after the meaning of piracy is ruled to be indeterminate.

Second, piracy is the poster-crime for well-defined, universally agreed on crimes. U.S. v. Smith treated it as the paradigmatic crime that international law defines well enough to allow for domestic punishment, and Sosa similarly treated it as a clear, universally agreed on crime of the kind that makes ATS liability unproblematic. But if the one of the central elements of the crime is essentially undefined, that blows the central assumption of Smith and Sosa out of the water. Indeed, it gives credence to the district court in U.S. v. Hasan, a prosecution of Somali pirates where the District Court in 2010 concluded that piracy is no longer well-defined enough to be punishable without a legislative definition. I criticized that decision extensively (and the Fourth Circuit reversed), assuring the world that piracy is indeed well-settled. Maybe I was wrong!

Finally, just to show I have no whale in this fight, let me suggest a way for Sea Shepherd to wriggle off the hook on remand. If I were them, I would say that while piracy is the paradigmatic ATS crime, “political” piracy is not universally accepted enough to be a basis of ATS liability. This is different from arguing that it is not covered by LOST Art. 101; rather, it argues that the ATS imposes a higher standard than just violating international law. It requires actual judicial precedents demonstrating the universal accord about the crime.

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