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Impact of Piracy on International Laws and Treaties

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

Introduction: Piracy and International Law – A Dance Across the Ages

In the tapestry of history, piracy emerges as a vibrant and contentious thread, weaving through centuries and crossing vast expanses of ocean. From the tales of marauding Vikings in Northern Europe to the pirates of the Caribbean and even the digital buccaneers of today's cyberspace, pirates have always loomed large in the world's imagination. But behind every legend lies a reality, and in the case of piracy, it's a reality that has continually collided with and shaped international law.

It's easy to romanticize pirates, with their renegade allure and thirst for freedom. However, the very nature of their activities—robbing, raiding, and often resorting to violence—posed undeniable threats not only to seafaring folks but also to the very structure of established trade and diplomacy. As ships carried goods, ideas, and treaties between nations, pirates lurked as potential disruptors, challenging the sanctity of these exchanges. With such blatant disruptions came a need: a need for laws that spanned beyond local shores, that could be recognized and enforced in the vast, lawless expanse of the open seas.

The response to piracy, therefore, is not just a tale of crime and punishment but one that provides a unique lens into the evolution of international relations. As early as ancient civilizations, leaders understood the necessity to govern the seas. In the face of piracy, nations were forced, often for the first time, to communicate, collaborate, and compromise. Treaties were forged, naval patrols coordinated, and slowly, a framework of maritime law began to take shape. What began as mutual agreements to curb the pirate menace would, over time, evolve into an intricate web of international laws and conventions.

This relationship between piracy and law is as dynamic as it is intricate. For every new tactic adopted by pirates, states responded with legal measures, surveillance, or naval might. For every loophole in law pirates exploited, nations rallied to close the gap. From this continual push and pull emerged laws and conventions that went beyond mere piracy, setting precedents for broader maritime issues, from territorial waters to fishing rights.

In this exploration, we will delve deep into this relationship, understanding not just how international law sought to combat piracy, but also how the presence of piracy, in many ways, catalyzed the very need for such laws. We'll uncover the symbiotic dance between pirates and international law, a dance that, in many ways, helped chart the course of our modern global relations.


Historical Evolution of Piracy Laws: A Sea of Change

Early Maritime Codes: Lex Rhodia and Beyond

Lex Rhodia: The Rhodian Sea Law

The Lex Rhodia, also known as the Rhodian Sea Law, is among the earliest known maritime codes, dating back to around 800 BCE on the island of Rhodes. This collection of laws encapsulates the maritime practices of the ancient Greek world and provided guidelines on various aspects of seafaring, including piracy.

The Lex Rhodia was not just a legal code but a reflection of maritime customs and traditions. The Rhodians were master sailors, and their laws were heavily influenced by the practical necessities of their time.

Provisions Against Piracy

Among the many provisions of the Lex Rhodia, those against piracy were clear and definitive. The code held ship captains responsible for the safety of the vessel and cargo, including protection against pirates. Specific measures were laid out for dealing with pirate attacks, such as cooperation with other vessels in the vicinity and the use of force if necessary.

Interestingly, the Lex Rhodia distinguished between piracy (illegal and punishable) and privateering (sanctioned under certain conditions). This distinction would later become a complex issue in international law.

Roman Maritime Laws

Following the Lex Rhodia, the Romans adopted and adapted many of the maritime principles for their extensive naval network. The Roman legal tradition included laws against piracy, considering pirates as "hostis humani generis" (enemies of all mankind). This concept marked pirates as unique criminals who could be pursued by anyone, not just the injured party.

Emperor Augustus took specific measures against piracy, recognizing its threat to the Empire's trade routes. The Roman Navy was deployed to suppress piracy in various regions, leading to famous naval battles and campaigns.

Byzantine and Islamic Maritime Codes

The legal traditions against piracy continued to evolve through the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world. The Byzantines, as the successors of Rome, maintained rigorous anti-piracy measures. Similarly, Islamic maritime codes laid down rules governing trade, navigation, and piracy, drawing inspiration from both Roman and local traditions.

Islamic scholars and jurists like Al-Shaybani wrote extensive treatises on maritime law, including detailed discussions on piracy and its punishment. These laws provided a balance between protecting trade routes and ensuring the humane treatment of captives.


The early maritime codes such as the Lex Rhodia were more than mere legal documents; they were living embodiments of maritime culture and practice. They recognized the inherent challenges of piracy and provided practical, often sophisticated solutions.

These ancient laws set the stage for later legal developments, creating principles that have endured through millennia. From Greek islands to Roman seas, from Byzantine shores to Islamic ports, the legacy of these early codes resonates even today, underscoring the complexity and universality of the fight against piracy.

These foundational texts demonstrate the deep roots of maritime law and offer a glimpse into a time when the world was connected, not by the internet, but by the vast and unpredictable seas. It is a testament to human ingenuity and cooperation that these early codes continue to influence contemporary legal thinking on piracy, a reminder that the challenges of the past continue to shape the present.


The Medieval Era: A Codification Begins

As the decline of the Roman Empire ushered in the Medieval Era, a new epoch of piracy emerged, marked by Vikings in the North, the Moors in the Mediterranean, and a plethora of local pirates operating in the vast coastlines of Europe. The rise in piracy, coupled with the importance of maritime trade for medieval kingdoms and empires, prompted the development and codification of laws to deal with the scourge of piracy.

Maritime Laws and Codes

1. The Laws of Oleron: Originating in the 12th century on the Isle of Oleron (off the west coast of modern-day France), these laws were influential maritime codes. They outlined a set of rules for seafaring and trade, and while not exclusively focused on piracy, they did contain provisions dealing with maritime theft and violence.

2. The Wisby Laws: Another significant maritime code of the medieval period, the Wisby Laws, emerged from the town of Visby in Gotland, an island off Sweden. This code was primarily focused on commercial aspects but also encompassed elements about piracy, safeguarding trade, and navigation rights.

Notable Cases and Figures

1. Eustace the Monk: Operating in the early 13th century, Eustace was both a pirate and mercenary. A defrocked Benedictine monk turned pirate, he terrorized the English Channel until his death in a sea battle in 1217. His notorious actions and considerable influence necessitated targeted responses from both the English and French monarchies.

2. The Victual Brothers: These German pirates operated in the Baltic Sea during the 14th century. Originally hired during a war between Denmark and Sweden, they turned to piracy after the war, prompting concerted efforts by Hanseatic towns to curb their activities.

Varied Approaches to Piracy

1. The Byzantine Empire: While the Byzantines had a mighty navy, they often found it more expedient to negotiate with pirates rather than confront them outright. At times, pirates were even incorporated into the empire's defense mechanisms, utilizing their expertise in exchange for protection.

2. Moorish Piracy: In the Mediterranean, the Moors engaged in piracy not just for economic reasons but also as a form of asymmetric warfare against Christian states. Christian kingdoms, in turn, sought to counter this threat through a combination of diplomacy, ransom payments, and military interventions.

3. The Viking Approach: While Vikings are often painted as mere raiders, they were multifaceted in their approach. In some areas, they settled and traded, while in others, they conducted raids. The response to Viking activities varied. While some kingdoms fortified their coastlines and built fleets to repel Viking incursions, others chose to pay tributes or engage in diplomatic endeavors to ensure peace.


The Medieval Era, with its blend of burgeoning maritime trade and frequent pirate raids, played a pivotal role in shaping the early codification of laws against piracy. Different societies adopted varied strategies, ranging from military countermeasures and legal codifications to diplomacy and negotiation. As trade routes expanded and maritime activities became increasingly central to economies, the need for a robust legal framework to address piracy became ever more crucial, setting the stage for the evolution of international maritime laws in the subsequent centuries.


The Golden Age of Piracy: A Call for Coordination

The 17th and 18th centuries mark an era that has come to be known as the Golden Age of Piracy, a time when the lure of riches, adventure, and lawlessness drove many to the pirate's life. This era's complexity was defined not only by a rise in pirate activities but by shifting geopolitical landscapes, colonial expansion, privateering, and the growing need for international legal coordination.

Rise of Privateering

During this period, many European nations were engaged in fierce naval conflicts. Privateering became a state-sanctioned activity, allowing private individuals to seize enemy vessels with their government's blessing. This policy blurred the lines between piracy and legitimate warfare.

Letters of Marque: Governments issued these licenses to privateers, legally authorizing them to attack and seize vessels of enemy nations. This practice complicated the legal landscape, as one nation's privateer was another's pirate.

Notable Privateers: Figures like Sir Henry Morgan and William Kidd started as privateers before their actions led to accusations of outright piracy. Their stories illustrate the murky ethical and legal waters of this era.

Admiralty Courts and Colonial Conflicts

Admiralty Courts: To address the rampant piracy, colonial powers such as England and France established admiralty courts in their Caribbean colonies. These courts were tasked with prosecuting pirates, but their effectiveness was often hampered by corrupt officials and legal ambiguities.

Overlapping Jurisdictions: The Caribbean was a hotbed of colonial competition. Conflicting claims and jurisdictions between European powers made consistent legal enforcement nearly impossible. A pirate could be a criminal in one jurisdiction and free in another, leading to a cat-and-mouse game of evasion.

International Treaties

Recognizing the failure of unilateral actions to curb piracy, nations began to seek international agreements.

The 1700 Treaty of Utrecht: This treaty between several European states included provisions against piracy. It was one of the first formal recognitions that piracy was not just a domestic issue but required international collaboration.

The 1726 Treaty of Madrid: Building on the previous treaty, this agreement between Spain and Portugal aimed to further coordinate anti-piracy efforts, including shared patrols and intelligence.


The Golden Age of Piracy represents a complex interplay between legal systems, international relations, economic incentives, and cultural shifts. The rise of privateering, the establishment of admiralty courts, and the eventual realization that international treaties were required to combat piracy effectively all played a role in shaping modern international law.

The lessons learned during this era laid the groundwork for future collaborations and served as a catalyst for more robust international agreements. The challenges faced during the Golden Age of Piracy continue to resonate in our contemporary approach to international law, reflecting the intricate and sometimes contentious relationship between sovereignty, law enforcement, and international cooperation.


19th Century: Toward Universal Jurisdiction

The 19th century was a significant era in the development of international law, particularly concerning the law of the seas. Influenced by growing humanitarian concerns and geopolitical changes, this century laid down principles that continue to shape maritime law today. While not directly addressing piracy, these developments had far-reaching implications on how piracy was understood and tackled.

A Humanitarian Awakening

The 19th century was marked by a burgeoning awareness and concern for human rights. Abolitionist movements, labor reforms, and other humanitarian causes gained traction, leading to global shifts in attitudes towards slavery and other inhumane practices.

Abolition of the Slave Trade: Piracy was often linked with the slave trade. The abolishment of slavery in major colonial powers such as the British Empire had significant consequences for piracy, as it dismantled a key economic incentive for pirate activities.
The 1856 Declaration of Paris
One of the critical developments in the 19th century's maritime law was the 1856 Declaration of Paris. Although its primary focus was not on piracy, its provisions had an indirect yet powerful impact.

Outlawing Privateering: The declaration sought to differentiate between lawful naval warfare and unlawful privateering. By outlawing privateering, it removed ambiguities that had allowed piracy to thrive under the guise of legitimate privateering in previous centuries.

Neutral Rights and Duties: The declaration also set out rules regarding the treatment of neutral vessels during times of war, indirectly shaping the way pirate activities were dealt with by different nations.

Toward Universal Jurisdiction

The 19th century's legal developments reiterated the principle of universal jurisdiction over piracy. The concept that piracy was a crime against all humanity and could be prosecuted by any nation became more widely accepted.

Precedents in Case Law: Various court cases around the world reinforced the principle of universal jurisdiction. These decisions reflected a growing consensus that piracy was not merely a territorial issue but an international crime requiring coordinated global response.

International Cooperation: This period saw increasing diplomatic efforts to coordinate anti-piracy measures, strengthening the resolve of nations to pursue and prosecute pirates regardless of where their crimes were committed.


The 19th century was an era of transformation in international law, with far-reaching implications for piracy. The humanitarian awakening, coupled with legal and diplomatic milestones like the 1856 Declaration of Paris, contributed to a more nuanced and globally coordinated approach to piracy. The outlawing of privateering and the reaffirmation of universal jurisdiction marked significant strides in the global fight against piracy. These developments set the stage for the modern legal framework governing piracy and continue to resonate in contemporary international maritime law.


20th Century: Building a Comprehensive Framework

The 20th century heralded a new era in the international legal approach to piracy, underlined by the creation of robust and universal frameworks that aimed to standardize anti-piracy measures across nations. Here's how the comprehensive structure was built:

The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas

The Geneva Convention on the High Seas of 1958 marked a critical juncture, setting out the legal framework for freedom of the seas and affirming the principles that had evolved through centuries of customary practice.

Universal Jurisdiction Reaffirmed: The Convention reinforced the universal jurisdiction over piracy, codifying it into international treaty law. This meant that any state could apprehend and prosecute pirates, regardless of their nationality or where the crime was committed.

Definition of Piracy: Although not as detailed as later documents, the Geneva Convention provided essential insights into what constituted piracy, setting the stage for more comprehensive definitions in subsequent treaties.

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

UNCLOS became a groundbreaking international agreement that has since shaped maritime law, including piracy.

Defining Piracy under International Law: Article 101 of UNCLOS provides a specific and exhaustive definition of piracy, encompassing illegal acts committed on the high seas for private ends. This clarity in definition allowed for consistent interpretation and application across member states.

Jurisdiction and Prosecution: UNCLOS elaborated on the principles of universal jurisdiction, outlining the rights and responsibilities of states in apprehending and prosecuting pirates.

Cooperation Between States: Encouraging international cooperation in the fight against piracy, UNCLOS urged states to collaborate in the prevention and suppression of piracy through information sharing, mutual legal assistance, and other means.

The Emergence of Regional Agreements

Recognizing that piracy manifests differently across regions, several regional agreements and initiatives emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.

Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP): Established in 2006, ReCAAP facilitates collaboration among Asian governments to ensure the safety of navigation in the region. It showcases a model of regional cooperation, providing a tailored approach to the unique challenges of piracy in Asia.

Other Regional Initiatives: Various other regions have seen collaborative efforts, such as the Djibouti Code of Conduct in the Western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. These agreements further exemplify the global move towards nuanced, region-specific strategies.


The 20th century was instrumental in shaping the legal landscape of piracy. Through landmark conventions like the Geneva Convention on the High Seas and UNCLOS, and the emergence of regional agreements, a comprehensive framework was established to address piracy in all its complexities. The combination of universal principles with region-specific strategies marked a sophisticated evolution in the legal battle against piracy. The century's achievements continue to serve as the backbone for contemporary efforts to suppress piracy and uphold the rule of law on the high seas.


Conclusion: A Fluid Legacy

The history of piracy laws is as complex and dynamic as the seas upon which pirates have sailed. This journey across millennia, encompassing different civilizations, legal traditions, and international agreements, has not merely been about suppressing crime on the high seas; it has played an essential role in shaping the principles and practices of international law and governance. Here's a closer look at this fluid legacy:



  1. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  2. The Geneva Convention on the High Seas, 1958.
  3. Regional agreements such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).
  4. Historical treaties like the Treaty of Utrecht and Treaty of Madrid.