Pirates are an ancient scourge – having been around as long as people have used the oceans as trade routes – as well as a modern menace. They made headlines recently for hijacking a U.S. cargo ship in the Indian Ocean, taking its captain hostage, and then being killed in his dramatic rescue. This latest attempted takeover of a U.S. flagged cargo ship shows that pirates are determined to continue their exploits, despite intense scorn from the international community.

Wayne Sandholtz, UC Irvine political science professor, says maritime piracy highlights the limitations of international law. He is the author of Prohibiting Plunder: How Norms Change, about the emergence of international rules against wartime looting of cultural treasures.

According to Sandholtz, questions about jurisdiction and sovereignty can make it difficult to prevent or prosecute crimes committed in international waters.

Below, he discusses maritime piracy and the challenges it poses to the enforcement of international law.

Q: Where is maritime piracy most common and what vessels are targeted?
 Piracy is a problem off the coast of East Africa, with Somali pirates dominating the area, and in the oceans around Indonesia and Malaysia and in the South China Sea. Pirates seize a variety of vessels, including private yachts, oil supertankers and, most commonly, cargo ships.

Q: Who are these pirates and what are their objectives?
 For Somali pirates, the ultimate goal is money. They’ve been fairly successful; some estimates say more than 120 ships were seized last year, with total ransoms paid in the $100 million range. Pirates off Somalia today are holding 12 to 16 ships hostage. The pirates usually come from the clans that dominate Somali political life. They use the money to support their clans and buy weapons and supplies. Pirates in Asia tend to shoot first and talk later. They are not out for ransom but to seize and sell the cargo.

Q: When it comes to combating piracy, how is international law limited?
 International law is very clear in prohibiting piracy, but the problem is enforcing these laws, apprehending pirates and preventing attacks. Even if outside countries have an interest in controlling piracy, they do not always have the right to take action in the territory of other sovereign nations. Pirates thrive when there is no government to stop them. Somalia is a collapsed state with no functioning government and therefore lacks the ability to shut down piracy.

Q: What is being done to stop maritime piracy?
 The strongest attempt so far is a U.N. Security Council resolution from December 2008 that authorizes other countries to use force in Somalia’s territory and waters to combat piracy. This is a new development and sets a precedent for future occurrences, should piracy become a significant problem in other parts of the world.