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Reforming the International Law of High Seas Piracy NLS1

  • School: Nottingham Law School
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: NLS1

High seas piracy is the original and, perhaps, paradigmatic international crime. The definition of piracy, as it presently appears in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), is however, arguably no longer fit for purpose. The definition relies on a number of “contingencies” – such as that: piracy must, by definition, be depredation for private motive; that it must occur upon the high seas (as opposed to territorial waters); and that it must involve an assault by one vessel against another. The onerous definition creates difficulties for State navies and prosecutors, charged with determining whether a given act at sea can be qualified as piracy or falls outside the prohibition. The definitional issues are not merely a theoretical problem for States to deal with given that, under the terms of UNCLOS, States may exercise universal jurisdiction over piracy, but only as defined in the treaty. As States have struggled to contain the resurgence in piracy since the early 2000s, so the continued suitability of the definition (and related rights and obligations) has been called into question.

A proposal from the International Law Commission suggests that there are issues inherent in the applicable law that are “uncertain or underdeveloped, which could benefit from study, codification, and progressive development”, making it suitable for consideration by the Commission, with a view to potential reform. No specific mode of reform is proposed, with suggested possibilities ranging from a “new convention” to “guidance to States”.

The successful candidate will conduct research aimed at both informing and analysing the work of the International Law Commission in this respect, with a broader objective of critiquing and appraising the present international legal apparatus, with a view to proposing potential reform.

Indicative issues may include:

  • Theory and rationale behind the existing definition of high seas piracy and availability of universal jurisdiction;
  • Analysis of the “cooperation” requirement, with a view to formulating proposals as to what form this should take in practice;
  • Analysis of the difficulties encountered by State navies and courts in enforcing the strict definition of piracy contained in UNCLOS;
  • Proposal for a piracy “model law” to promote greater uniformity and harmonisation of State approaches;
  • Responses to land-based supporters and funders of piracy;
  • The relationship between UNCLOS and the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation;
  • Potential areas of reform.

School strategic research priority

This project aligns with the Centre for Rights and Justice existing strengths in international law and sustains a cross-disciplinary activity across Safety and Security of Citizens and Society research theme.

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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