An interesting side issue associated with the recent high seas collision between the Sea Shepherd boat, Robert Hunter and Japanese whaling boat, Kaiko Maru, is the status of the two Sea Shepherd boats operating in the Southern Ocean. The Farley Mowat has been deregistered, first by Canada and more recently by Belize, whilst the Robert Hunter has reportedly been advised of its impending deregistration by the United Kingdom.

If deregistered, then under international law the two boats become Stateless vessels or vessels without nationality. Not as catchy as the term ‘pirate vessel’ yet a more accurate description of their status.

Piracy and the label ‘pirates’ are convenient terms being used with increasing frequency to refer to rogue boats whose operators flout international and regional laws governing the uses of the sea. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing boats are often labelled pirate vessels, usually by politicians, industry groups and NGOs. The term is emotive and evokes the desired public response.

Japanese whalers are sometimes called pirates. Now the Sea Shepherd boats are to be called pirate vessels simply by virtue of losing their registration? This is stretching the application of the law too far. It’s enough to make international lawyers the world over grind their collective teeth.

The customary and codified international law definition of piracy is one that would aptly apply to Captain Jack and the Black Pearl. Essentially (for it is a convoluted definition) piracy involves illegal acts of violence or detention committed, against another ship, for private ends on the high seas.

It is even questionable whether politically inspired acts would fall within the definition. The term armed robbery is often used in conjunction with piracy and it assists one to visualise the essence of piracy. In late December 2006 two black clad men climbed aboard a container ship and, armed with crowbars, stole equipment.

Modern day pirates seek valuable communications equipment and stores and are often opportunistic in their targeting of merchant vessels. Piracy is still very prevalent with favoured pirate haunts located in the seas of South East Asia and adjacent to the West African coast. Stateless boats steaming the high seas campaigning against whaling do not fit the definition. Someone has to set the record straight on piracy; it may as well be an international lawyer.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey