On the world’s oceans, piracy and armed robbery are on the rise. So is smuggling — especially of migrants
and drugs. Among the most widespread and serious at sea, these crimes are often masterminded by organized
criminals who take full advantage of weaknesses in law enforcement on the oceans. In some areas, they have
succeeded in undermining marine transport.
Maritime security and the safety of life at sea are also threatened by other criminal activities, such as terrorism, hijackings, the smuggling of arms and hazardous wastes, illegal fishing and dumping, the illegal discharge
of pollutants, and other violations of environmental laws.
Piracy — An Old Crime with a New Edge
Piracy today is very different from what it was like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays attacks
against ships are not confined to the high seas, but take place most often on territorial seas and in ports, and
pose a serious threat to seafarers and to the shipping industry.
From 1984 to the end of May 2002, 2,678 incidents of piracy and armed attack were reported to the
International Maritime Organization (IMO). In the first six months of 2002, 171 such incidents were reported,
with 370 in 2001 and 471 in 2000. But it is widely recognized that these figures are far below the number of
actual cases. Shipowners often choose not to report such attacks because of the cost they would incur with
their ships immobilized by an enquiry.
Modern day pirates can be petty thieves, members of armed gangs or members of highly organized crime
syndicates with international ties and access to detailed information and know-how that allow them to target
and attack vessels with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. They usually attack ships under cover of night
in armed gangs of 5 to 10, using small speedboats that are hard to detect. Their loot ranges from money and
valuables stolen from the crew and the ship’s safe to the entire cargo or even the ship itself.
While in most cases pirates only threaten to use bodily harm, sometimes crew members are killed or
wounded. According to reports received by the IMO, in 2000 alone 72 crewmembers were killed, 129 were
wounded and 5 were reported missing. According to reports received by the International Maritime Bureau of
the International Chamber of Commerce, since 1991, 286 crew members have been killed, 296 wounded,
50 reported missing, and 2,156 taken hostage. The areas most affected are the South China Sea, the Malacca
Straits, the Indian Ocean, West and East Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
In recent years, there has been a significant rise in incidents of ship hijackings, usually involving organized
crime syndicates. In 2001, 16 such incidents were reported, compared to eight in the previous year. Tracking
down and prosecuting those responsible can be difficult, as the ships are often made to disappear. A hijacked
ship, once its cargo has been offloaded, can be falsely renamed and reregistered, becoming a “phantom ship” —
untraceable and free to sail away with any cargo placed in its care.
What makes acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships difficult to combat is the lack of effective law
enforcement and prosecution of armed robbers. This makes piracy extremely attractive to criminals, promising
easy money at low risk. To reverse this trend, more resources must be devoted to law enforcement agencies to
enable increased and more effective monitoring of the seas, better regional communications and cooperation,
more accurate and timely reporting and investigation of incidents, and more effective prosecution of criminals.
Human Cargo — The Smuggling of Migrants
The international shipping industry is an attractive and very lucrative mode of operation for criminals engaged in the
smuggling of migrants. In fact, this trade in human cargo has become so profitable that many organized crime groups
have chosen to refocus their smuggling operations away from drugs to human beings.
The smugglers prey on the desperation of migrants who are driven by poverty, the lack of opportunity and political
and social violence in their countries of origin to risk everything in the hope of a better future. To maximize profits, the
smugglers show little regard for human lives, hiding as many people as they can fit into sealed containers or in the hold
of ships, which are often barely seaworthy. With few options, the migrants entrust their lives to the smugglers, who
further victimize them by charging exorbitant fees and gambling with their lives. The migrants are often deceived about
their country of destination, and are sometimes forced to engage in criminal activities upon their arrival in order to
reimburse the criminals for expenses incurred. Women and children, in particular, are often enslaved.
While no exact figures are available, it is believed that the smuggling of migrants is on the rise. In an effort to
better understand the extent of the problem, the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO has established a reporting
procedure to encourage governments and international organizations to report all unsafe practices associated with the
trafficking or transport of migrants. As of 30 April 2002, 276 incidents involving 12,426 migrants had been reported.
The Drug Trade
Drug trafficking continues to be one of the most widespread crimes at sea. Fishing boats, small cargo vessels and
pleasure craft — especially speedboats — are subject to fewer controls and reporting requirements than large-scale
commercial vessels, and they provide a common means for smuggling illegal drugs and psychotropic substances,
particularly cocaine and cannabis. Commercial vessels are used for moving large quantities of drugs between countries,
particularly as unmanifested, well-concealed or falsely declared cargo.
Counter-drug operations are difficult to carry out at sea. As a result, the main focus of law enforcement operations
has been on surveillance and control measures in ports, especially where container ships are involved. But, when
successful, interception operations at sea often result in the seizure of larger quantities of drugs than those on land or in
the air. For example, French authorities recently recovered 100 kilograms of cocaine when they intercepted a ship off
the Atlantic coast of Africa, after several days of monitoring in a joint operation with the United States, Greece and
The Convention on the Law of the Sea requires States to cooperate in suppressing illicit trafficking in narcotic
drugs on the high seas, and permits nations to request the assistance of other nations to suppress that traffic.
Fighting Crime at Sea
In the 20 years since the adoption of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, crimes at sea have become more prevalent
and are increasing. The framers of the Convention never envisaged many of the crimes that exist today, and as a result
either included only a general provision or none at all regarding their suppression.
Since 1982, several conventions have been adopted in order to strengthen international cooperation in the suppression of criminal activities at sea. For example, the 1988 United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic
Drugs and Psychotropic Substances builds upon the general requirement in the Convention on the Law of the Sea that
nations cooperate in the suppression of illicit drug trafficking on the seas by allowing the interception of a ship suspected
of illicit trafficking by a State other than the flag State of that ship.
Similar rights of interception are provided for in the 2000 Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea
and Air, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime with regard to a ship
suspected of smuggling migrants.
Furthermore, the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation
requires States to prosecute acts of armed robbery against ships or any other unlawful act not covered by the definition
of piracy in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Specifically, it requires a State to prosecute a criminal act if it is
committed against or on board a ship that is either flying its flag or is in its territory, including its territorial sea, or if the
crime is committed by one of its nationals.