Ten years ago, a cell phone video recorded by a crewman aboard the Ping Shin 101, a tuna trawler, documented the systematic murder of sailors somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Despite witnesses on other vessels in the area, no international law required anyone to report the murders to authorities. When a cell phone with the damning video was found in a Fijian taxi in 2014, the video was circulated online. Over time, the crew were identified by investigators through social media, found and interviewed to find the captain of the vessel who ordered the executions. Its former captain was arrested when he entered Taiwan in 2020. In June of this year, after two appeals of his conviction for executing pirates, the former captain’s sentence was reduced by half to 13 years.
Merchant ships and fishing boats being attacked by pirates has been a hazard at sea for hundreds of years. It was one of the reasons that a nation depending on seaborne trade with other nations needed a navy to protect their shipping. (Another reason was the practice of conscripting (impressing) sailors and seizing cargo by a warship interdicting trade intended for a rival they were warring against.) In parts of the world where economic upheaval occurs, smuggling, seizure of vessels and piracy are still occurring. In the 1990s, after the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq flouted an international oil embargo, smuggling oil to other Mid-East nations until ended with his overthrow in 2003. In opposition to the United States and its allies, North Korea, Iran and Syria have been circumventing economic sanctions to deter proliferation of weapons. In March, 2022, industrialists in Russia and at least one industry in the PRC were added for smuggling weapons and technology to the Middle East. While these issues dominate the world stage, it is government instability and economic hardship for small fishermen that seems to breed piracy.
Some researchers suggest after the collapse of Somalia’s government in 1991, other nations’ fishing fleets overfished the waters in the Gulf of Aden. Somali fishermen turned to piracy to survive. They attacked shipping (Aden links Indian Ocean traffic to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal); Ransoming cargoes and crews continued until the US and its allies began protecting international shipping in the region. (The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama in 2009, and its captain’s rescue by the US Navy was made into a movie.) In addition to the waters off Somalia, the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, piracy has escalated in the southern Caribbean. With the economic upheaval following Venezuela’s election of Hugo Chavez, fishermen turned to piracy in the Caribbean waters between Venezuela and Guyana.
International merchant groups and insurers such as the World Shipping Council, the International Maritime Organization, and Merrimac Marine Insurance coordinate to guard against piracy. However, the pandemic, war in Ukraine, Chinese naval expansion, and other threats, piracy has not made headlines as it did 25 years ago. Piracy still is a major concern for large and small operators. It is why one site, the ICC Commercial Crime Services, posts an updated international map to aid sailors. As for the imprisoned Chinese national in Taiwan, executing “pirates” and avoiding jurisprudence for eight years, a 13-year sentence seems a slight deterrent if international maritime law cannot deter rivals committing bloodshed.