First things first.
If you find it difficult to understand IMO conventions, nothing is wrong with you.
Conventions are written in the language of international laws which is not the language me and you would normally speak.
It is the language of the maritime lawyers.
And till the time we are not practicing maritime law, we do not need to worry about the language of the conventions.
But seafarers, specially senior officers need to understand the essence of each convention related to the maritime field.
At the least we need to know what each convention aim to achieve.
Today I will try to simplify SUA convention which is”Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation”.
Why do we need SUA convention
Have you watched the movie “Captain Philips”?
Even if you have, allow me to give a brief about the story for the benefit of those who haven’t watched the movie.
The story is about the container ship Maersk Alabama which was attacked & boarded by the Somalian pirates.
With ship’s staff heroic, the pirates were made to leave the ship but they managed to leave in the lifeboat alongwith the Captain.
The US Navy was involved and the captain was released from the pirate’s captivity.
In this whole battle, 3 out of 4 pirates were killed and one was arrested by the US navy.
Now here is my question.
What could US do with that arrested pirate? Also what allowed the US navy to take action and kill the pirates?
You could easily say that pirates did something wrong and they got paid for their misadventure.
But that is not how the law of the land works.
The courts do not decide the rights and wrongs. The court just observes if the actions of the person is offense as per the written law that they follow.
So in the case of Maersk Alabama incident, if there was no written law, the arrested pirate could say something like…
I have no food to eat and I was dying of hunger. boarding a ship forcefully and snatching some money from the ship and ship-owners is my business and my job. I was just doing my job. I haven’t broken any law.
In fact that is what the arrested pirate did during the hearing in US court.
Believe me, even though we all know it is not right morally, the pirate cannot be sentenced as it is not about what is right or wrong. It is all about if there is any law (International or local) that they broke.
And when the issue is something that affects most part of the world, local laws cannot be effective.
The local laws need to be brought together with an international convention.
For the issues of crimes against ships, SUA convention is the framework that bind the local laws of the countries that has ratified it.
SUA convention is not the law
It is important to mention that SUA convention (like any international convention ) is not the law in itself.
It becomes the law when the country that ratifies the convention includes the provisions of the convention in their local laws of the country.
Main points of SUA convention
SUA convention deals with the criminal issues. And like any criminal law, there are few common points that are addressed.
- To whom the law applies ?
- What are the areas of Jurisdiction of the states?
- What actions are considered to be offenses?
- What are the punishments for each of the defined offenses?
The answer to these three questions more or less covers the SUA convention.
Let us discuss each of these provisions.
To whom the SUA convention applies
The convention applies to all the ships navigating in the high seas. Article 2 of the SUA convention defines the applicability of the convention by defining ships for which the convention do not apply.
As per Article 2 of the SUA convention,
The convention does not apply to
- a warship
- a ship owned or operated by a state when being used by naval auxiliary or for customs or for police purposes
- a ship which has been withdrawn from navigation or laid up
Jurisdiction of the state as per SUA convention
If Somali pirates boarded a vessel in high seas away from the territorial waters of any state, can any state take action against the pirates when arrested.
Again, “Yes” cannot be the answer.
It need to be a written law. If and which state will have the jurisdiction and when.
Article 6 of the SUA convention deals with the jurisdiction part.
Article 6 of the SUA conventions asks the states to define its jurisdiction. It asks the states to establish its jurisdiction if
- the offense is committed against or on board a ship flying its flag
- the offense is committed in the territory (or territorial waters) of the state
- the offense is committed by national of the state.
Now you know what allowed the USA to arrest and put the arrested pirate from Maersk Alabama under trial in USA.
Because US had their jurisdiction as the offense was committed on board a ship that was registered in USA.
The Offenses as per SUA convention
As I discusses, any convention dealing with the issues relating to the crime need to define the offenses.
Artcle 3 of the SUA convention defines the acts that would be treated as offenses.
In simple words, article 3 of the SUA convention criminalises the following acts by any person
- Illegaly or forcefully taking control of a ship
- Violance against a person on ship if it is likely to endanger the safety of the ship
- Damaging or destroying a ship or its cargo in such a way that endanger the safety of the ship
- placing or trying to place any device or substance that can destroy or damage the ship or its cargo
- destroying or damaging a ship’s navigation facilities oe interfering with their operation if it is likely to endanger the safety of the ship.
- Communicating information which is known to be false, therby endangering the safety of the navigation of the ship.
- Injuring or killing someone while committing any of the above offenses.
- Being an accomplice to any of the above offenses.
- Compelling someone through threats to commit any of the above offenses.
Punishment for the offenses
Another aspect of the criminal law is to define the punishment for each of the criminal offense.
Article 3 of the SUA convention has defined the offenses and the states that ratifies the SUA convention need to include these offenses in the country’s local law.
But what about the punishment for each of the offenses?
SUA convention requires the states to define the punishment.
The international convention cannot decide the punishment for any offenses. It is the matter for each of the state to decide.
For example, some countries may require the hands of the convicted thieves to be cut as the punishment and other countries may have just few months (or years) of imprisonment as a punishment for the same crime.
It would all depend upon how severe the offense is considered in that country.
But SUA convention do urge the states to take into account the grave nature of the offenses while deciding on the penalities or punishment for the offenses.
However SUA convention do require the states to make the offenses punishable.
This means that if a country is agreeing to ratify the SUA convention, they cannot (in the country’s written law) let the offenders go away without any punishment.
As per article 5 of the SUA convention,
Each State Party shall make the offenses set forth in article 3 punishable by appropriate penalties which take into account the grave nature of those offenses.
SUA Protocol & 2005 SUA Protocol
SUA protocol was introduced at the same time as the SUA convention.
SUA protocol is the supplementary convention to the SUA convention.
The only difference between SUA convention and SUA protocol is that this protocol deals with safety of fixed platforms.
In the year 2005, a second supplementary Protocol to SUA was introduced.
The 2005 Protocol adds provisions which criminalises the use of ships to transfer or discharge biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons.
This means that a ship carrying biological, chemical or nuclear weapons is considered to be an offense.
However, SUA convention allows the carriage of nuclear weapons under the control of a state that is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
An international convention is brought up to address an issue that not only affects the whole world but also involves the whole world.
In these cases, having scattered local laws of each country can never solve the issue.
An international convention is required that would bind the law of each country.
Or If I can put it this way that an international convention is required to bring uniformity in the law of affected countries.
SUA convention is one such international convention that deals with the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.
Like any other criminal law, SUA convention defines
- When the convention is applicable
- What jurisdiction each state will have
- What acts are considered to be offenses
- What will be punishments for each of these offenses
The answer to these questions more or less covers the SUA conventions.
About Capt Rajeev Jassal
Capt. Rajeev Jassal has sailed for over 19 years mainly on crude oil, product and chemical tankers. He holds MBA in shipping & Logistics degree from London. He has done extensive research on quantitatively measuring Safety culture onboard and safety climate ashore which he believes is the most important element for safer shipping.
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