Oceans and Law of the Sea

Legal Framework for the Repression of Piracy Under UNCLOS

Updated 09 September 2010

The definition of the crime of piracy is contained in article 101 of UNCLOS, which reads as follows:

''Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).''

UNCLOS provides that all States have an obligation to cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy (art. 100) and have universal jurisdiction on the high seas to seize pirate ships and aircraft, or a ship or aircraft taken by piracy and under the control of pirates, and arrest the persons and seize the property on board (art. 105). Article 110, inter alia, also allows States to exercise a right of visit vis--vis ships suspected of being engaged in piracy.

These provisions should be read together with article 58(2) of UNCLOS, which makes it clear that the above-mentioned articles and other pertinent rules of international law apply to the exclusive economic zone in so far as they are not incompatible with the provision of UNCLOS relating to the exclusive economic zone.

It is also important to distinguish the crime of piracy from armed robbery against ships, which can occur within the internal waters and territorial sea of a coastal State. In accordance with Part II of UNCLOS, in cases of armed robbery against ships, primary responsibility for enforcement normally falls on the coastal State. Armed robbery against ships also constitutes an offence under the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA Convention) and, in some cases, the 2000 United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

Prepared by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations.

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