Violent crime at sea — including murder — often goes unreported, and therefore uninvestigated and unprosecuted. Up to 70 percent of violent crime in the Gulf of Guinea, for instance, goes unreported, according to the International Maritime Bureau.
International treaties can and do establish clear lines of responsibility for investigating and taking action against violence.
Violence at sea targets local mariners and fishermen, seafarers on commercial vessels, and even passengers and crews on luxury cruise lines. Our research has shown that the perpetrators often operate with impunity. The current level of violent crime at sea would never be accepted in any sector ashore, and should not be tolerated at sea.
There are many reasons that violent crimes at sea go unreported; victims may fear retribution, shipping companies may have liability or insurance concerns, risk of detention for the ship and crew for lengthy investigations or little expectation of prosecution.
Addressing violence at sea first requires accurate reporting. There are two initiatives, specifically designed to increase reporting that could provide a useful framework: The federal Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act that mandates reporting of criminal activity on passenger ships to the F.B.I., and the Declaration Condemning Acts of Violence Against Seafarers (the Washington Declaration),where major flag states (the country where a vessel is registered) commit to reporting to the International Maritime Bureau when seafarers face violence at sea. Consequences for shipowners who do not report crime under the federal act include considerable fines and up to one year in prison, although the Washington Declaration relies on voluntary flag state reporting.
Establishing clear responsibility for investigating and prosecuting crimes, is the second critical element. Even for the crime of piracy, where the concept of “universal jurisdiction” allows any state to prosecute pirates, there is no clear obligation to actually bring criminals to justice. Not a single successful pirate prosecution has been recorded in the Gulf of Guinea.
A binding and unambiguous commitment to investigate and prosecute violent attacks at sea is needed. In the numerous Security Council resolutions that address piracy and armed robbery at sea, states are urged to fully implement their obligations under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. The convention, which is signed by 166 states, requires flag states, territorial states and the state of the alleged offender to establish jurisdiction over an array of violent crimes at sea while the state of the victim may also claim jurisdiction. Its unambiguous requirement that states either prosecute or extradite to another prosecuting state could provide an effective model for ensuring prosecution of violent crimes at sea.