Full Circle Moment

By Anna Goldfinch

I started out my internship knowing virtually nothing about maritime piracy, let alone the laws that surround this issue. I had a million questions. After a summer at Oceans Beyond Piracy, I know a lot more, but I have a million and one questions. This is because the issue of maritime piracy is complex, with intersecting issues, lots of gray areas, little precedent, and no concrete answers. As I worked my way through a variety of topics this summer, it all felt a little disjointed.

That was until I started working on the issue of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs). PMSCs provide armed guards to ships to protect them from piracy. Generally speaking, having armed guards on ships has been found to reduce the number of pirate attacks. This issue is good indicator of what is actually happening in the maritime domain to respond to piracy and also brought all the work that I had been doing full circle.

Initially, the response to a surge in violent pirate attacks was governance. This was the first thing I learned about during my internship. International treaties mandate signatories to pass national anti-piracy legislation. Nations create anti-piracy strategies, plans, and legislative frameworks. However, this is foiled by the fact that the reporting of piracy is actually very low. There is no way to enforce anti-piracy laws if piracy is going completely unseen. Reporting is low because there are major financial disincentives for ships to report that they have been attacked. Costly inspections that would follow a report of piracy hurt the shipping companies’ bottom line and the seafarers’ wallets.

With a lack of reporting comes a lack of prosecution. There are very few cases of countries using universal jurisdiction to prosecute for piracy. While there has been some success in Somalia through a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) project that involves special courts, prisons and transfer agreements for accused and convicted pirates, this has not been seen elsewhere in the world.

Because of this, the shipping industry has looked for alternative ways to protect their workers and their goods. Their solution is hiring privately contracted, armed security guards (PMSCs), which was previously prohibited. As previously mentioned, this has seemingly led to a reduced amount of violence against seafarers. However, anecdotally these armed guards are often poorly trained in the escalation and use of force and will commonly open fire on boats that may try to approach their ship. After having researched PMSCs further, they aren’t necessarily a solution, but rather a simple reversal of those doing the attacking and those being attacked at sea.

From a human rights perspective, this bothered me. Pirates, while engaging in criminal activity, should still have all of their human rights guaranteed to them, including due process and a fair trial. Currently, it seems that a pirate may walk free if it is deemed they would be too costly to prosecute, or killed if an embarked guard feels threatened. This complete unpredictability of punishment is, in my view, unjust.

And this is where my work was brought full circle. My last task at Oceans Beyond Piracy was to research ways of holding PMSCs more accountable for their actions, providing better standards, training, and recourse for wronged parties. Essentially, I was looking into how to use governance to solve the problem of violence at sea.

In this exercise, I realized that so many of the problems that we try to address through human rights work are so intertwined, so complex, that sometimes we end up governing ourselves full circle. My millionth and one question is how do we make human rights focused interventions that break these full circle moments to provide solutions that are just and lasting?

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