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Christine Detz on piracy, international law, and the New York Times

In a previous post, I noted a recent article in the New York Times on Somali piracy. From my perspective, the article presented an incorrect characterization of international law dealing with piracy. Following the post, I received a note from a former student, Christine Detz, herself a former journalist, and suggested that she write a post. To my great pleasure, she did, and her post follows.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The New York Times has a reputation in the journalism world of being an example of some of the best in print journalism and Times reporters and contributors have won countless Pulitzers over the years, so imagine my surprise when I read Andres Cala’s piece on the arraignment of accused Somali pirates in a Spanish court.  How could Mr. Cala have gotten the facts so wrong?  I’m not talking about a “minor” error buried in the middle of the article either, the error is right there in his lead: “Two Somali men were arraigned on kidnapping charges in a Spanish court on Tuesday in a case that underscores the legal ambiguity of trying people suspected of piracy in international waters.”  The basis for the entire article is factually inaccurate.  There is no “legal ambiguity” regarding who has jurisdiction in piracy cases – every state has the right, and some might suggest the responsibility, to prosecute cases of piracy in international waters.

I understand that international law has many, many gray areas, however piracy is not one of them.  The Law of the Sea is one of the most stable aspects of international law there is.  Piracy is one of the jus cogens crimes, a fundamental principle of international law which is accepted by the international community of states as a norm from which no derogation is ever permitted.  Other examples of jus cogens include genocide, slavery and torture.  In fact, piracy was the first of these crimes to become a jus cogens – in the 19th century.

Mr. Cala is not a lawyer, however that does not excuse him from this (in my opinion) egregious error.  He merely had to do some simple research and within five minutes he would have come across the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.  A simple search for the word “piracy” in said Convention would lead to Article 105, among others, which states:

Seizure of a pirate ship or aircraft

“On the high seas, or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State, every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft, or a ship or aircraft taken by piracy and under the control of pirates, and arrest the persons and seize the property on board. The courts of the State which carried out the seizure may decide upon the penalties to be imposed, and may also determine the action to be taken with regard to the ships, aircraft or property, subject to the rights of third parties acting in good faith.”

I don’t see any “legal ambiguity” there.

Mr. Cala’s article quotes the Spanish prosecutor involved in this case, however it is unclear whether or not Mr. Cala actually interviewed Mr. Alonso, or if these quotes were taken from court proceedings.  To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Cala did not interview any other lawyers or even an international legal scholar in an attempt to clarify the so-called ambiguous jurisdiction.  Put simply, this is poor journalism.  A journalist’s job is to become a mini-expert on the assigned topic in order to put forth the most informative, and factually accurate, story possible.  It is not always easy.  Sloppy journalism is unprofessional and unacceptable at any level.  Quite frankly Mr. Cala, as a journalist myself, I am disappointed.

Posted by Christine Detz

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  • Robert Dupuis says:

    Ms. Detz’s article should be sent to the mainstream alphabet networks as well as CNN, HLN, and MSNBC. They may be interested in learning more about the goals of true journalism.

  • Alex Long says:

    fantastic post. valuable response to the inaccurate original Times piece. it’s also refreshing to be reminded of elements of international law that are, in fact, not as “gray” as many assume them (or might wish them) to be.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.