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Pirates and the Law Focus of Asia Law Society Talk

By Lori Atherton

Mention "pirates," and most people conjure up an image of Johnny Depp or of a sailor sporting an eye patch and a parrot on his shoulder. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, one of the hotbeds of piracy was off the coast of Madagascar, and the companion of choice was the Coton de Tulear. This cute and small white dog, with cotton-like fur, was used to keep rats at bay on the ships.

The history of pirates, their role as a catalyst in the development of public international law, and the rise of modern-day piracy were shared by Visiting Associate Prof. Joel Samuels, '99, in his recent Asia Law Society talk "A Brief History of Piracy: The Legacy of Piracy and Efforts to Combat It."

Watch a video of Prof. Samuels' talk.

"Piracy is really at the heart of the development of international law itself," said Prof. Samuels, an associate professor of law and deputy director of the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina. "The problem that piracy posed was that it occurred in a territory that didn't belong to anyone, and so we needed a body of law to resolve situations that occurred outside the territory of any state on the high seas."

The United States has been instrumental in defining piracy and developing piracy law, Prof. Samuels noted. The earliest published federal court case involving piracy was the 1812 case United States v. Tully, while the first U.S. Supreme Court case addressing piracy was United States v. Palmer (1818). The 1844 case Harmony v. United States was the "last case involving piracy for almost 200 years," until 2008's United States v. Shi.

Talking about the rise of modern-day piracy, which began in the 1980s and continues to the present, Prof. Samuels noted there were nearly 500 piracy events in 2010, which occurred near East Africa and throughout the rest of the world. Pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia, in particular, numbered 170 in that year alone. Just four years earlier, in 2006, only 31 pirate attacks occurred in that area.

"You can see why this issue is of such importance to commerce and to governments interested in protecting those waters," he said. "As a result of those events, multinational coalitions have developed to patrol those waters," including the United States, which has "actively patrolled off the coast of Somalia since 2008."

While countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and Kenya take different approaches to regulating piracy, Prof. Samuels noted that once pirates are captured, they are the responsibility of the arresting country.


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