Maritime Piracy In The 21st Century

Aarcha Sasikumar

Keywords: Maritime Piracy, International Maritime Bureau, Seafarers, Piracy Laws


Pirates are not just fictional characters, but are one of the most serious and dangerous threats faced in the international waters. The period between 1650 and 1730 is known as the golden age of piracy as there existed thousands of pirates in the high seas who looted and killed. Though maritime piracy has existed for over 4 centuries now, sailors could not report the atrocities that happen to them till 1992.

[i]In 1992, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) formed the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) which now serves as a one-point contact for sailors and shipmasters who can now report piracy, armed robbery and stowaway incidents. Though many people have come to assume that acts of piracy were high only during the 17th and 18th centuries, the truth is that the stakes are higher today, in the 21st Century.

Piracy gained more attention after the regular attacks of Somali pirates that started filling the news since around 15 years now. If you take their case for instance, [ii]Somalia has been suffering wars, famine and economic problems for many years now. As a result of their poor economic conditions, pirate gangs were formed that went out to the seas to hold seafarers as hostages and claim ransom in return for their lives. 

That being said, Somalia is not the only region affected by maritime piracy. The occurrence of piracy activities are spread across the globe and are most prevalent in areas of Caribbean, Gulf of Guinea, Strait of Malacca and Indian Ocean.

[iii]For the year 2019 alone 119 incidents of piracy and armed robberies were reported and as for the ones that have not been reported, we will never know. But nevertheless, this number is much better than what was reported in 2018, which was 156 cases. Though the number of people taken into hostage has decreased by a good margin, the statistics with respect to weapons related incidents have increased and it thereby affirms IMB’s concern regarding the threats on the security of sea travellers and ships.

The statistics of 2020 results in a more alarming situation than the previous year. From 119 in 2019 the numbers have jumped up to 139 this year, that too exclusive of one quarter i.e., considering the first three quarters alone.


The Gulf of Guinea is a part of the Atlantic Ocean that covers the West African coast. Its border stretches for about 6000 kilometres and lies between Guinea and Angola. As of this year, Gulf of Guinea has been identified as the hotspot of piracy activities. [iv]As reported by IMB, the Gulf of Guinea accounts for about 95% of the piracy activities across the globe, and thereby points out how organized their groups and attacks are.  

During the period of 1980s, there was an increase in the number of investments of Multinational Oil companies in the country of Nigeria. This was a result of the policy changes brought by the Nigerian Government. But this move wasn’t welcomed by some people who perceived this as a threat to the economy and the environment. [v]Their grievances built up to form two dangerous armed forces: Movement for the Emancipation of the Delta (MEND) and Niger Delta Avengers (NDA). Though their active years were from 2006-2009 and 2016-2017 respectively, their model of attacking the Gulf of Guinea to attack oil infrastructures and ships, paved way for the creation of much more evolved and notorious groups.

As a result of these activities, the regions surrounding Gulf of Guinea loses on a lot of international economic investments and thereby depriving the areas of development opportunities. This contributes to a range of other economic activities, including fishing and tourism. These economic deficiencies combined with unemployment results in a never ending chain of crime. And ironically, this chain of crimes is a product of piracy and armed robbery and also the root cause of the same.


[vi]The Indian Ocean was considered mare librum which means free sea. Merchants and seafarers could trade and travel without any restrictions and required no permissions. But things changed after the advent of the Europeans in the 15th Century. They inflicted a sense of supremacy over the waters and slowly grabbed sovereignty over the Indian Ocean. Thereby, they began imposing restrictions, taxes etc. to exert their power over the waters.

This affected the local communities across many coasts and agitated many. This led to the formation of aggressive groups that the Europeans perceived as “outlaws”. The Indian Ocean waters are mostly threatened by Somalian pirates. Though the number of cases have decreased, the numbers are still alarming enough. When there were more than 201 occurrences of piracy related activities reported in the Indian Ocean in 2011 alone, there were 162 incidents reported in 2019.

[vii]In September this year, India joined as observer in the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCOC), a multinational group that aims at countering maritime piracy and providing secure seafaring in the Indian Ocean. 


[viii]The Strait of Malacca is the region connecting Andaman Sea and South China Sea. Since the region is an important travel route for Indo-Sino trade and navigation, it faces lots of maritime piracy incidents. But there has been a steady and gradual decrease in the number of occurrences over the years.

The regions around Indonesia are mostly equipped with weapons such as knives and guns. [ix]In 2018, Indonesia reported 36 actual and attempted occurrences whereas in 2019 there were only 25 actual and attempted incidents had occurred. At the same time, the pirates around the Singapore Strait are infamous for attacking during the night time. In 2019, they’ve reported 31 piracy occurrences as compared 7 in 2018.

Looking into the statistics of the 3 quarter years of 2020, the numbers have decreased satisfactorily enough. [x]16 cases have been reported so far in the Indonesian region and 15 ships were attacked in the Singapore Strait, but most of them were low level crimes.


Venezuela, the region in the coast of the Caribbean is reportedly showing an increase in maritime piracy and armed robbery. This is accounted to the deterioration in their economy since 2013. The increased rates of goods and increase in unemployment is yet again the cause for the rise of piracy occurrences.

During 1980s the waters of Venezuela wasn’t this chaotic as the fish industry was in full bloom around this time. [xi]But this came to a staggered end with the nationalisation of Pelscapa Fish Company. This was a result of the economic policies implemented in Venezuela in past 20 years. With vanishing private and foreign investments and unemployment on the rise, the jobless fishermen turned to piracy that gave them better means of living.   

[xii]In 2018, 85 cases of maritime piracy where reported whereas it was 84 in 2019.


[xiii]International laws regarding maritime piracy is prima facie governed by Articles 100 to 107 and 100 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Through Article 105 of the UNCLOS it is made clear that, apart from the power of States to capture pirate ships within their jurisdiction, any State may seize and arrest the pirate ships and its inhabitants of those waters that aren’t a part of the jurisdiction of any State at all.

One issue with the definition of piracy as given in Article 101 is that it restricts the definition of piracy to the high seas that too, only between two ships or aircrafts. This totally neglects the aspect wherein a ship may contain pirates in the form of passengers who then hold the crew and the other passengers for ransom. The Resolutions passed by the UN Security Council aims at achieving security in International waters without being affected by the limitation of the aforementioned definition of piracy.

Earlier the system that was used to keep track of the ships in high seas were AIS (Automatic Identification System) but now they have been replaced by LRIT (Long Range Identification and Tracking) System. [xiv]The reason why LRITs are preferred more is because AIS systems used to be turned off by the sailors so that they don’t get tracked by the pirates, but LRIT system remains accessible only to designated authorities and thereby ensures security of the sailors without the fear of being tracked.  

Apart from the strong international legal reforms, individual States also play a vital role in curbing the numbers of the cases. Each country ensures a strong naval force that keeps a close check on the maritime activities within their territorial jurisdiction and therefore controls any sort of activity that rises from their shores also. Each country has its own legislations also inforce to punish such activities.


At large maritime piracy is the effect of widespread poverty and unemployment that makes people vulnerable enough to resort to such drastic measures. Eradicating the root cause i.e., poverty, is the only one-stop solution to the worldwide threat of piracy.

For usual crimes, there is always a well-established judicial system in every country that arrests, tries and convicts the criminals. But the very nature of maritime piracy is such that no single country can take decision or has authority over the crime taking place and sometimes the jurisdiction of occurrence belongs to no State at all. Here, the only way to ensure international maritime peace and security, is the unanimous co-operation of all countries and collective efforts to eliminate the global threat. 

[i] ‘IMB Piracy Reporting Centre’, (ICC Commercial Crime Services) <> accessed

[ii] CR News, ‘Sea Pirates of the 21st Century are gangs run by criminal masterminds – Hostage Negotiator’ (Cambiaso Risso, 5 December 2016) <> accessed

[iii] ‘Maritime piracy incidents down in Q3, yet Gulf of Guinea remains a hot spot’, (ICC Commercial Crime Services) <> accessed 

[iv] ‘Pirates are kidnapping more seafarers off West Africa, IMB reports’, (ICC 14 October 2020) <’s%20latest%20global%20piracy%20report,the%20same%20period%20last%20year.&text=In%20the%20first%20nine%20months%20of%202020%2C%20seafarers%20reported%20134,held%20hostage%20onboard%20their%20ships.> accessed 

[v] Maisie Pigeon, Kelly Moss, ‘Why Piracy Is a Growing Threat in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea’, (World Politics Review, 9 June 2020) <> accessed 

[vi] Lakshmi Subramanian, ‘The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean’, (OUP Blog, 4 June 2016), <> accessed

[vii] HT Correspondent, ‘India joins Indian Ocean grouping against piracy as observer’, (Hindustan times, 17 September 2020) < > accessed  

[viii] ‘Strait of Malacca’, (Encyclopædia Britannica, 20 June 2019) <> accessed 

[ix] ‘Number of actual and attempted piracy attacks in Indonesia from 2008 to 2019’, (Statista) <,attempted%20piracy%20attacks%20in%20Indonesia.&text=Piracy%20attacks%20in%20Indonesian%20waters,when%20108%20incidents%20were%20reported> accessed

[x] ‘Pirates are kidnapping more seafarers off West Africa, IMB reports’, (ICC 14 October 2020) <’s%20latest%20global%20piracy%20report,the%20same%20period%20last%20year.&text=In%20the%20first%20nine%20months%20of%202020%2C%20seafarers%20reported%20134,held%20hostage%20onboard%20their%20ships.> accessed 

[xi] Nathan Paul Southern, ‘New Pirates of the Caribbean: Growing instability in Venezuela’, (Global Risk Insights, 19 March 2019) <> accessed 

[xii] ‘Total incidents of piracy and robbery in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2016 to 2019’, (Statista) <> accessed 

[xiii] ‘Piracy Under International Law’, (Oceans and Laws of the Sea – United Nations) <> accessed 

[xiv] Michele Vespe, ‘The declining impact of piracy on maritime transport in the Indian Ocean: Statistical analysis of 5-year vessel tracking data’, (Marine Policy,2015) accessed

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