An important case before US Courts at present is US v Ali, where the defendant is accused of, among other offences, aiding and abetting piracy by acting as an interpreter. (See the ruling on a preliminary motion here.) The case clearly has implications for other facilitators of piracy, such as financiers and the bosses of pirate gangs.
However, it now appears the presiding judge, US District Judge Ellen Huvelle, has described the aiding and abetting piracy charge as an “outrage” given that US prosecutors can only place the defendant as present on a hijacked vessel – while it was still on the high seas – for less than 30 minutes. (See reports here and here.) The defendant did, however, allegedly spend 69 days on the vessel after its capture in his role as translator and intermediary for ransom negotiations (presumably while it was detained closer to shore).
The case may raise a number of features some would find objectionable (including the fact that US authorities lured the defendant to a “conference” on Somalia in order to arrest him), but this aiding and abetting charge should not be one of them.
At international law, piracy can be committed on dry land.
The conclusion is not intuitive, but it is textually open on the treaty law. True, both the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (Article 110(1)) and the Geneva High Seas Convention 1952 (Article 15(1)) define piracy as including any:
“illegal acts of violence or detention … committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship … and directed: … on the high seas, against another ship”.
This basic definition clearly contains a geographic limitation: “on the high seas”.
However, both treaties actually create three separate offences, all called piracy. The definition above is only one of these. Let’s call it “Piracy 1”.
The third “piracy” offence (“Piracy 3”) under treaty law includes “inciting or … intentionally facilitating” any act constituting Piracy 1 (UNCLOS, Article 101(3); High Seas Convention, Article 15(3)). The words of geographic limitation (“on the high seas”) only appear in the definition of Piracy 1. They do not appear at all in Piracy 3.
Thus, the words “on the high seas” simply do not govern the “inciting or … intentionally facilitating” offence if one reads the treaty law – and a US Court should. The holding in US v Dire (US Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit, 23 May 2012, p. 41) appears to be that the content of the crime of “piracy by law of nations” is defined by the modern treaty law, although it did not rule on the “inciting or … intentionally facilitating” offence directly.
Nonetheless, it makes perfect sense both that one can facilitate piracy without ever going out onto the high seas and that any such act of facilitation should be punishable as piracy. (Although separate, and rather technical, question might be the precise relationship between the “inciting or … intentionally facilitating” treaty language and national modes of participation in crime such as aiding and abetting.)
Oddly enough, though, this point of treaty interpretation is mentioned nowhere in the literature that I am aware of, with the honourable exception of Robin Geiss and Anna Petrig’s Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea (Oxford, 2011, p. 64).