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What actions are legal against pirates for private ships?

It depends on the marine timemaritime laws of the flag state and whether the ship is in international or national waters at the time of the incident. Hence the answer is highly variable depending on the exactly which marine treaties the flag state has signed and ratified.

However the doctrine of universal jurisdiction does apply against certain marine crimes such as piracy. Specifically, since as a pirate is considered hostes humani generis (enemy of the human race), a merchant ship could kill pirates with impunity and probably pass any legal challenges in their next port of call.

But merchant ships usually do not carry lethal ordinance for several reasons:

  • Historically a heavily armed merchant ship crosses the line into a warship or privateer of the flag states. Essentially a part of the nation's auxiliary navy and treated as such.
  • Some countries and ports of call will consider a heavily armed merchant ship to be gun-running. Which is more common than you might think.
  • Lethal ordinance can and often does cause conflict escalation; to an extent that only the pirates can afford.

Why are contemporary cargo ships travelling unarmed in such dangerous regions?

Saves fuel + the reasons for being unarmed. Besides at its height, the dangerous region was very large as the speed boats usually docked with ocean-going support ships instead of the land ports; extending the effective range (and requiring a greater capital investment by the pirates to pay off).

Are there any regulations in international law forbidding using heavy weapons in self-defense for private ship operators?

International law? We don't actually have much true international law yet. Simply conventions and treaties signed by nation states. As such, the exact constraints depends on either the flag state or whatever any nation feels like enforcing on merchant ships in international waters.

What legal consequences would have arming the cargo ships in torpedoes and machine guns and sinking approaching pirate boats?

As above. Specific consequences depend on specifics, such as:

  • Where the incident occurred.
  • Whether it occurred wholly or in part in international or national waters; or multiple potentially overlapping national waters.
  • The flag-state of ship.
  • The nationality of the company owning the ship.
  • The nationality of each crew member, especially the captain.
  • The port that the ship is currently docked at during trial.
  • The country the trial actually occurs in.
  • The state of belligerency between any of the nations or nationalities listed above.
  • The nature of business that the merchant ship was undertaking. Whether the merchant ship itself was hostis humani generis.

And the list goes on.


A political aspect to this question:

Somali piracy was initially a reaction to fish poaching inside Somali national waters due to the collapse the Somali government and coast guard. The recent history of Somalia is a rich vein (of deeply depressing) political fundamentals with the normal buffer of diplomacy stripped away. That is, small fish (fishermen) eaten by bigger fish (poachers) eaten by bigger fish (pirates) eaten by bigger fish (foreign navies). The smallest fish eating actual fish due to the collapse of inland agriculture.

What actions are legal against pirates for private ships?

It depends on the marine time laws of the flag state and whether the ship is in international or national waters at the time of the incident. Hence the answer is highly variable depending on the exactly which marine treaties the flag state has signed and ratified.

However the doctrine of universal jurisdiction does apply against certain marine crimes such as piracy. Specifically, since as a pirate is considered hostes humani generis (enemy of the human race), a merchant ship could kill pirates with impunity and probably pass any legal challenges in their next port of call.

But merchant ships usually do not carry lethal ordinance for several reasons:

  • Historically a heavily armed merchant ship crosses the line into a warship or privateer of the flag states. Essentially a part of the nation's auxiliary navy and treated as such.
  • Some countries and ports of call will consider a heavily armed merchant ship to be gun-running. Which is more common than you might think.
  • Lethal ordinance can and often does cause conflict escalation; to an extent that only the pirates can afford.

Why are contemporary cargo ships travelling unarmed in such dangerous regions?

Saves fuel + the reasons for being unarmed. Besides at its height, the dangerous region was very large as the speed boats usually docked with ocean-going support ships instead of the land ports; extending the effective range (and requiring a greater capital investment by the pirates to pay off).

Are there any regulations in international law forbidding using heavy weapons in self-defense for private ship operators?

International law? We don't actually have much true international law yet. Simply conventions and treaties signed by nation states. As such, the exact constraints depends on either the flag state or whatever any nation feels like enforcing on merchant ships in international waters.

What legal consequences would have arming the cargo ships in torpedoes and machine guns and sinking approaching pirate boats?

As above. Specific consequences depend on specifics, such as:

  • Where the incident occurred.
  • Whether it occurred wholly or in part in international or national waters; or multiple potentially overlapping national waters.
  • The flag-state of ship.
  • The nationality of the company owning the ship.
  • The nationality of each crew member, especially the captain.
  • The port that the ship is currently docked at during trial.
  • The country the trial actually occurs in.
  • The state of belligerency between any of the nations or nationalities listed above.
  • The nature of business that the merchant ship was undertaking. Whether the merchant ship itself was hostis humani generis.

And the list goes on.


A political aspect to this question:

Somali piracy was initially a reaction to fish poaching inside Somali national waters due to the collapse the Somali government and coast guard. The recent history of Somalia is a rich vein (of deeply depressing) political fundamentals with the normal buffer of diplomacy stripped away. That is, small fish (fishermen) eaten by bigger fish (poachers) eaten by bigger fish (pirates) eaten by bigger fish (foreign navies). The smallest fish eating actual fish due to the collapse of inland agriculture.

What actions are legal against pirates for private ships?

It depends on the maritime laws of the flag state and whether the ship is in international or national waters at the time of the incident. Hence the answer is highly variable depending on the exactly which marine treaties the flag state has signed and ratified.

However the doctrine of universal jurisdiction does apply against certain marine crimes such as piracy. Specifically, since as a pirate is considered hostes humani generis (enemy of the human race), a merchant ship could kill pirates with impunity and probably pass any legal challenges in their next port of call.

But merchant ships usually do not carry lethal ordinance for several reasons:

  • Historically a heavily armed merchant ship crosses the line into a warship or privateer of the flag states. Essentially a part of the nation's auxiliary navy and treated as such.
  • Some countries and ports of call will consider a heavily armed merchant ship to be gun-running. Which is more common than you might think.
  • Lethal ordinance can and often does cause conflict escalation; to an extent that only the pirates can afford.

Why are contemporary cargo ships travelling unarmed in such dangerous regions?

Saves fuel + the reasons for being unarmed. Besides at its height, the dangerous region was very large as the speed boats usually docked with ocean-going support ships instead of the land ports; extending the effective range (and requiring a greater capital investment by the pirates to pay off).

Are there any regulations in international law forbidding using heavy weapons in self-defense for private ship operators?

International law? We don't actually have much true international law yet. Simply conventions and treaties signed by nation states. As such, the exact constraints depends on either the flag state or whatever any nation feels like enforcing on merchant ships in international waters.

What legal consequences would have arming the cargo ships in torpedoes and machine guns and sinking approaching pirate boats?

As above. Specific consequences depend on specifics, such as:

  • Where the incident occurred.
  • Whether it occurred wholly or in part in international or national waters; or multiple potentially overlapping national waters.
  • The flag-state of ship.
  • The nationality of the company owning the ship.
  • The nationality of each crew member, especially the captain.
  • The port that the ship is currently docked at during trial.
  • The country the trial actually occurs in.
  • The state of belligerency between any of the nations or nationalities listed above.
  • The nature of business that the merchant ship was undertaking. Whether the merchant ship itself was hostis humani generis.

And the list goes on.


A political aspect to this question:

Somali piracy was initially a reaction to fish poaching inside Somali national waters due to the collapse the Somali government and coast guard. The recent history of Somalia is a rich vein (of deeply depressing) political fundamentals with the normal buffer of diplomacy stripped away. That is, small fish (fishermen) eaten by bigger fish (poachers) eaten by bigger fish (pirates) eaten by bigger fish (foreign navies). The smallest fish eating actual fish due to the collapse of inland agriculture.

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What actions are legal against pirates for private ships?

It depends on the marine time laws of the flag state and whether the ship is in international or national waters at the time of the incident. Hence the answer is highly variable depending on the exactly which marine treaties the flag state has signed and ratified.

However the doctrine of universal jurisdiction does apply against certain marine crimes such as piracy. Specifically, since as a pirate is considered hostes humani generis (enemy of the human race), a merchant ship could kill pirates with impunity and probably pass any legal challenges in their next port of call.

But merchant ships usually do not carry lethal ordinance for several reasons:

  • Historically a heavily armed merchant ship crosses the line into a warship or privateer of the flag states. Essentially a part of the nation's auxiliary navy and treated as such.
  • Some countries and ports of call will consider a heavily armed merchant ship to be gun-running. Which is more common than you might think.
  • Lethal ordinance can and often does cause conflict escalation; to an extent that only the pirates can afford.

Why are contemporary cargo ships travelling unarmed in such dangerous regions?

Saves fuel + the reasons for being unarmed. Besides at its height, the dangerous region was very large as the speed boats usually docked with ocean-going support ships instead of the land ports; extending the effective range (and requiring a greater capital investment by the pirates to pay off).

Are there any regulations in international law forbidding using heavy weapons in self-defense for private ship operators?

International law? We don't actually have much true international law yet. Simply conventions and treaties signed by nation states. As such, the exact constraints depends on either the flag state or whatever any nation feels like enforcing on merchant ships in international waters.

What legal consequences would have arming the cargo ships in torpedoes and machine guns and sinking approaching pirate boats?

As above. Specific consequences depend on specifics, such as:

  • Where the incident occurred.
  • Whether it occurred wholly or in part in international or national waters; or multiple potentially overlapping national waters.
  • The flag-state of ship.
  • The nationality of the company owning the ship.
  • The nationality of each crew member, especially the captain.
  • The port that the ship is currently docked at during trial.
  • The country the trial actually occurs in.
  • The state of belligerency between any of the nations or nationalities listed above.
  • The nature of business that the merchant ship was undertaking. Whether the merchant ship itself was hostis humani generis.

And the list goes on.


A political aspect to this question:

Somali piracy was initially a reaction to fish poaching inside Somali national waters due to the collapse the Somali government and coast guard. The recent history of Somalia is a rich vein (of deeply depressing) political fundamentals with the normal buffer of diplomacy stripped away. That is, small fish (fishermen) eaten by bigger fish (poachers) eaten by bigger fish (pirates) eaten by bigger fish (foreign navies). The smallest fish eating actual fish due to the collapse of inland agriculture.