International Laws May Be Part Of Maritime Piracy Problem

International piracy costs the shipping industry billions of dollars a year and leads to high-profile murders that make global headlines. Longstanding concerns over piracy have led to numerous international laws and conventions designed to keep pirates in check – but research from North Carolina State University shows that the tangled network of laws may actually be helping pirates escape justice.

“We wanted to know why the international community is not working together and taking advantage of existing laws to address piracy, even as piracy is on the rise in places like the horn of Africa,” says Dr. Mark Nance, assistant professor of political science at NC State and co-author of a paper on the issue.

The researchers found that the existing framework of international laws creates uncertainty in how countries will respond to piracy, depending on which international convention a nation chooses to apply. “For example,” Nance says, “a nation that captures pirates may choose to let them go, bring them home for prosecution in national  courts, or take them to a third country for prosecution.” This uncertainty leaves different countries with different expectations as to how they could – or should – cooperate to address piracy.

“We found that the lack of international coordination exists because there are so many international laws that apply, not because there are none,” says Dr. Michael Struett, assistant professor of political science at NC State and a co-author of the paper. “If the international community really wants to crack down on piracy, countries need to give a governing body – such as the International Maritime Organization or the United Nations – the responsibility to build international consensus around the best approach to combating piracy.”

The paper, “Maritime Piracy and Regime Complexes: Explaining Low Levels of Coordination,” was presented March 16 at the International Studies Association annual meeting in Montreal.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Maritime Piracy and Regime Complexes: Explaining Low Levels of Coordination”

Authors: Michael J. Struett, Mark T. Nance, North Carolina State University

Presented: March 16 at the International Studies Association annual meeting in Montreal

Abstract: There is a “regime complex,” or web of regimes, that addresses maritime piracy, and while some states have taken modest steps to deter and punish pirates, in general states are not taking aggressive action against piracy, and policy coordination between states has been limited.  What explains the lack of coordination on this burgeoning global crisis, despite a preexisting, applicable governance tools? We argue that the state’s low level of anti-piracy policy coordination is due in large part to gaps in the anti-piracy regime complex.  We hypothesize that the overlapping regime covering piracy is itself a major barrier to effective cooperation because it does not comprise a coherent, comprehensive, and focused anti-piracy regime.  Most of the institutions that comprise the regime complex focus primarily on other international problems, making piracy an afterthought.  State preferences in creating and maintaining the relevant regimes are driven by issues unrelated to piracy.  This inhibits effective anti-piracy cooperation.  In other words, coordination fails because of the complex, not despite it.  If this hypothesis is confirmed, then the missing anti-maritime piracy regime highlights a larger pathology of contemporary global governance.  Because international cooperation is channeled into diverse regimes each of which focuses on a particular issue area, multidimensional problems like piracy fall outside of existing institutional spaces for effective governance.

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