West African judicial and maritime authorities exchange on pirates hand-over agreements

In 2014 alone, damages from piracy are estimated at around USD 1 billion for the international community. In the Gulf of Guinea, more than 1,000 sailors were attacked by pirates in the same period. However, prosecution for piracy in the region is currently almost absent as most states lack the relevant legal framework to handle such matters. In West and Central Africa, and particularly in the Gulf of Guinea - home to some of the biggest offshore oilfields in the world - maritime crime involves the hijacking of petrochemical tankers and attacks on other oil and petroleum storage and transportation platforms. Kidnapping is currently on the rise.

From 14 to 16 March 2016, three prosecutors, judges and policy legal experts from Gabon, Togo, Benin and Nigeria met in Abuja, to exchange on their respective national legal frameworks, with particular reference to the rules of evidence. Indeed, evidence collection, preservation, storage, and handling, are subject to different regulations in each country. Legal cooperation on maritime crime has to take into account the legal system in which the evidence has to be delivered, in order to allow for effective prosecution.

The meeting was held under the coordination of a UNODC expert from the Global Maritime Crime Programme, who guided the discussion to ensure the appropriate analysis of each country's legal system, and facilitate the sharing of best practices and lessons learnt. "Participants were all extremely involved in the discussions, which went on until evening each day, to examine the differences between Common Law and French-based legal systems" said the expert, Mr. Giuseppe Sernia.

Meeting participants at the end of the event

This exchange was mostly aimed at identifying the critical steps and procedures in cases of hand-over of pirates between different jurisdictions, a procedure often adopted in East Africa, specific to trials where universal jurisdiction can be applied. Piracy is one of the few crime where, according to international law, universal jurisdiction is allowed.

A difference immediately emerged between rules of evidence as applied in common law systems, like Nigeria's, as opposed to the French-derived legal systems of Togo, Benin and Gabon. While in French-based systems judicial police officers have the power to assert presumptive evidence, in common law-based systems, like the Nigerian, they cannot. This means evidence collection performed by officers of a French-based legal system should also comply with the strict chain of evidence typical of the Common law-based legal systems to allow the hand-over of suspected pirates.

Finally, the delegations studied the text of the agreements between EUNAVFOR and several Eastern African countries, which have allowed for the hand-over of pirates in East Africa. "These allow transferring pirates between the authorities of the country that apprehended the suspected pirate, and the country in which the suspect will be prosecuted. All delegations compared the existing text with their own legal systems, and strategized on how to obtain a similar agreement in the Gulf of Guinea," concluded Mr. Giuseppe Sernia.

The UNODC Global Maritime Crime Programme is currently training prosecutors and judges in the Gulf of Guinea, reforming legal framework in order to allow effective prosecution of maritime crimes, and mentoring law enforcement agencies to improve efficiency in enforcing rule of law on sea.

For more information:

UNODC's activities on maritime crime and piracy

2013 Yaounde Code of Conduct on Piracy and Illicit Maritime Activity

2014 UNODC Maritime Crime Programme Annual Report

UN Convention on the Law of the Sea