21 April 2018


Piracy can be seen as either a type of organisation, where the entire group is organised for piracy activities with financial gain being the singular objective, or it can be seen as a tactic to obtain financing employed by organisations with other aims, such as insurgency groups or organised crime syndicates. 

Piracy definition

The piracy definition of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is used, although it allows for low-level theft and crime to be included. However, it describes the act in itself and not the intention of the perpetrator:

"An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act."

The IMO definition in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Article 101) explicitly underlines that the act has to be carried out for private ends, which excludes the acts of terrorists, insurgency groups or environmental activists.

Piracy consists of any of the following acts:
Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the:

1) crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:

  • on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft
  • against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State

2) 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

3) any act inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in sub-paragraph (1) or (2).

Armed robbery against ships is defined in the Code of Practice for the Investigation of the Crimes of Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships (resolution A.922(22), Annex, paragraph 2.2), as follows:
“Armed robbery against ships means any unlawful act of violence or detention or any act of depredation, or threat thereof, other than an act of “piracy”, directed against a ship or against persons or property on board such ship, within a State’s jurisdiction over such offences.”

Translated, it means that according to the IMO:

  • Piracy must involve a criminal act of violence, detention, or depredation.
  • Piracy is committed on the high seas or in a place outside the jurisdiction of any state.
  • The “two-ship rule”. Pirates need to use a ship to attack another ship (which excludes mutiny and barratry).
  • Piracy needs to be committed for private ends, (which excludes the acts of terrorists or environmental activists).
  • Piracy must be committed by the crew or passengers of a privately owned vessel, (which excludes attacks by naval craft).

For the purpose of our model, which focuses on the background motivation of the incidents, the IMO definition does not apply since a part of maritime crime is carried out by groups that are politically motivated on the strategic level, while carrying out the individual activity for financial reasons on the tactical level.

Piracy consists of the following main types of criminal acts:

  • Harbour and anchorage attacks
  • Attacks against vessels at sea: (sea) robbery – also referred to as Asian Piracy
  • Attacks against vessels at sea: Hijacking with neutralisation of the crew – variation: permanent seizure of a vessel by pirates
  • Kidnap for ransom