International Relations Piracy
Christian Bueger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0123


Piracy has plagued the oceans throughout human history. Increasing maritime trade flows have led to recurrent waves of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Piracy was always more than just a crime. It has been a constitutive problem for developing global order, for establishing the distinction between private violence and state violence, and for regulating global space from the Pax Britannica to the modern international law of the sea. Piracy is a problem not only of the past or of theory. Since the 1990s, the return of large-scale piracy in East Asia, the Horn of Africa, and other regions can be observed. In particular, piracy rooted in Somalia has received wide international attention. International security actors, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union (EU), or the UN Security Council, have become concerned about piracy. In consequence, since 2008 an international armada has patrolled the Horn of Africa. Contemporary piracy is increasingly recognized to be one of the major nontraditional security threats. It is a multidimensional issue, connected to concerns over state failure, arms trade, terrorism, transport, energy, and environmental security, as well as global maritime security. The goals of this article are, first, to familiarize the reader with works that examine the history of the concept and the practice of piracy in light of the development of global political order and international law. Second, the article encompasses literature on contemporary piracy and the international response to it, including contributions that theorize the causes of piracy as a conjecture of weak governance, opportunity, and cultural acceptability. Works that study the responses of global and regional security governance and that propose alternative policies of coping with piracy are also included. The main focus is on today’s two major hot spots of piracy, East Asia and the Horn of Africa.

General Overviews

Several titles provide general overviews. Comprehensive books focus on the history of piracy and piracy as a legal problem, or entail a survey of contemporary piracy. Konstam 2008 is a very accessible historical overview of the phenomenon of piracy from ancient times to the modern day. Heller-Roazen 2009 gives the most wide-ranging reconstruction of piracy as a concept in legal and political philosophy. An edited volume, Ellenman, et al. 2010 provides case studies of historical and contemporary piracy useful for introductory purposes. Kraska 2011 is the most comprehensive volume in terms of covering institutional responses to contemporary piracy. The Piracy Studies website provides an extended bibliography of academic titles on contemporary piracy useful to identify further literature.

  • Ellenman, Bruce A., Andrew Forbes, and David Rosenberg. Piracy and Maritime Crime: Historical and Modern Case Studies. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2010.

    A collection of twelve case studies on piracy covering different historical periods and regions. Includes discussions of the legal definition of piracy and of piracy in East Asia and in East and West Africa, which provide useful overviews of the discussion of the respective forms of piracy.

  • Heller-Roazen, Daniel. The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

    Provides a major reconstruction of the place of the concept of piracy in legal and political thought. The book argues that pirates have represented the universal foe throughout history and provides an extensive discussion of the role of piracy in the work of various thinkers from Cicero to contemporaries.

  • Konstam, Angus. Piracy: The Complete History. Oxford: Osprey, 2008.

    The book gives the most accessible and comprehensive overview in tracing piracy throughout the centuries. Discusses ancient piracy, medieval piracy, the Barbary pirates, and the “golden age” of piracy and includes a discussion of piracy in fiction. The book ends in a very brief overview on contemporary piracy, but it is the strongest in its coverage of golden age piracy and drawing connections between different historical periods.

  • Kraska, James. Contemporary Maritime Piracy: International Law, Strategy, and Diplomacy at Sea. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2011.

    The book places emphasis on contemporary responses. It includes a brief history of piracy and then proceeds to discuss the development of the law of the sea and piracy as a challenge to naval strategy and to diplomacy; gives a useful overview on the problems of prosecuting pirates. It contains an appendix with legal documents.

  • Piracy Studies: Academic Research on Maritime Piracy.

    Provides a regularly updated, though not annotated, bibliography of academic literature that specializes in contemporary piracy across disciplines. With more than 240 titles, the bibliography demonstrates the growing interest that piracy has received in different disciplines since the late 2000s. The bibliography compiled by the piracy studies research group is a useful gateway to identify specialized literature.

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