The Ninth Circuit was right to reverse the district court in the Sea Shepherd Case. The district court erroneously read “private ends” as excluding political ends like saving the whales. But the “private ends” requirement has never been understood to inject a subjective element to the piracy inquiry. It does not turn on whether the actor’s motives are pecuniary, political, operating under mistake of fact, or simply insane. Private ends are those ends held by private parties. The converse is also true: a government-owned ship in government service cannot commit piracy even if it attacks another vessel solely to enrich itself.
The rule is clear as both a matter of customary international law and the Law of the Sea Convention. On the latter score, the “private” ends requirement of the UNCLOS Art. 101 (which defines piracy) has to be read in conjunction with Art. 102, which distinguishes between “warship” or “government ship” – which cannot commit piracy while under governmental control and “private” ships, which are the kind that can be pirates. Thus “private” clearly means “non-governmental,” rather than selfish or not selfish.
The strongest refutation of the district court’s reasoning are opinions finding that attacks by rebel or guerilla groups that had not become recognized belligerents (i.e., de facto state actors) constitute mere piracy. See The Ambrose Light, 25 F. 408
(D.C. N.Y. 1885). Indeed, Confederate privateers would have been treated as pirates had it not been for a political (i.e., executive) decision not to do so. Obviously no such decision has been made in favor of Sea Shepard, which is essentially waging “private war” – or rather, “private Whale Wars.”
Indeed, Judge Story in The Marianna Flora (1822) made it clear there not be any intent for pecuniary gain:
[N]or do I conceive that it is indispensable