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The MS Achille Lauro hijacking: On piracy, maritime terrorism and the safety of shipping

The MS Achille Lauro hijacking: On piracy, maritime terrorism and the safety of shipping

Haines, Steven (2021) The MS Achille Lauro hijacking: On piracy, maritime terrorism and the safety of shipping. In: Letts, D. and McLaughlin, R., (eds.) Case Studies in Maritime Security Law. Routledge. (In Press)

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During the Grotian era, when ocean governance was dominated by the principle of mare liberum (free seas), two notable areas of law prevailed against a backdrop of minimal ocean regulation: the laws of war at sea; and the law relating to sea piracy. They became two essential normative pillars of mare liberum, simply because war and piratical acts both posed major threats to the essential rights and freedoms enshrined in the notion of ‘free seas’. Each threatened peaceful trading activities and had the potential to disrupt maritime imperial access. Their regulation or suppression were significant imperatives for the great powers with seaborne empires, whose navies had a combination of war-fighting and constabulary purpose. We are clearly concerned with the suppression of violence at sea, but we are focusing in this chapter only on that violence emanating from non-state entities. Traditionally, this would have meant the suppression of piracy but, in the contemporary maritime security environment, we need to broaden our focus to include other manifestations of non-state violence, including armed robbery and terrorism.

The Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985 provides us with a most pertinent case study, the influence of which remains significant. The seizure was effected by ‘terrorists’ and raised awareness of the potential for terrorist attacks within the maritime environment, something that had previously not generated substantial international concern. Importantly, however, the hijacking also fell outside the legal parameters of piracy. For that reason, it prompted serious reflection on piracy’s widely accepted international legal definition. The law of sea piracy had been codified in the 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas. In the mid-1980s that codification had only very recently been repeated in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It was, as a result, rapidly coming to be regarded as the customary position on the subject.

That is certainly not to suggest that this law was entirely adequate as a means of dealing with non-state violence at sea. The reason why the Achille Lauro incident is sufficiently significant to warrant a chapter in this volume is that, in highlighting the obvious shortcomings in the law of sea piracy, it also led directly to new treaty law on maritime security, negotiated under the auspices of the International Maritime Organisation - namely the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation. This is the foundation document of what can usefully be referred to as the SUA Regime.

The SUA Regime has already achieved significance in relation to maritime security operations and there is certainly evidence that the utility of this new law has the potential to well exceed that of the pre-existing law of sea piracy. Could the Achille Lauro hijacking come to be regarded as a watershed event in maritime security law, consigning the traditional and established law of piracy to history? In order to answer that question we need to examine the relationship between the law of piracy and the SUA Regime. We also need to give some consideration to the degree of obligation attached to those two bodies of law. Before we do that, it will be useful to provide some background comments on both the law of sea piracy and the phenomenon of ‘maritime terrorism’. We will then move on briefly to describe the events of October 1985, before reaching some conclusions as to the consequences, legal and operational.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Faculty / School / Research Centre / Research Group: Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences > School of Law & Criminology (LAC)
Last Modified: 02 Dec 2021 16:50

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