A country has sovereign powers to govern by law the land of its territory, the airspace above that land, and the seas along its coasts out to a limit of 12 nautical miles. Earlier the sea limits were set at three nautical miles because that was the distance a cannon on the beach could fire.
The height of the air space above land is not universally agreed to, but the United States has argued that the airspace includes that part of the sky that would support an aircraft of any kind, and above any airspace was outer space open to any craft driven by rocket engines, not resting on wings or balloons.
To that end a country may police its airspace and prohibit any aircraft from entering without permission. A country has no control over craft flying in outer space above its territory.
A county has similar jurisdiction over its territorial waters out to 12 miles. Countries also have the power to regulate fishing and commercial activities in an exclusive economic zone out to 200 miles from shore. Though the United States does not claim full sovereignty in the waters above the continental shelf, which may extend out further than 200 miles, we claim exclusive jurisdiction on the bed of the sea of the continental shelf. Thus we can regulate oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico because they operate on our continental shelf.
Beyond the territorial seas are the high seas that nobody owns, territorium nullius. High seas are similar to outer space owned by no states, open to all.
So it is that Somali pirates in theory cannot be arrested by foreign military if they are within the 12-mile limit of Somali territorial seas. But if they are on the high seas, pirates can be captured by naval units of any country.
In 1968, the U.S. warship Pueblo was boarded by North Korean sailors. North Korea impounded the ship and they still have it. North Korea claimed territorial waters of 50 miles. The U.S. claimed our ship was in international waters outside the 12 mile limit that is almost universally accepted. The American crew was finally released after 10 months captivity.
The American sailors were not pirates. They were members of the U.S. Navy. But the location of the Pueblo is still in dispute. It was either inside or outside the territorial seas of North Korea.
I think our ship was out in international waters. However, some analysts agree with North Korea.
A country's jurisdiction out to sea is very complicated. Recently, Iceland and Great Britain nearly went to war when Iceland claimed a 50-mile limit to its territorial waters and tried to force the British fishing vessels to stop fishing in those waters. Some ships were actually rammed. Diplomacy finally brought a solution to this dispute.
When the United States became independent in 1784 at the end of the Revolutionary War, our ships in the Mediterranean were no longer protected by the British who paid the Barbary pirates money to leave British shipping alone. Our ships no longer under British protection were attacked by pirates.
Beginning in 1785, after the end of our Revolutionary War until 1815, the U.S. paid tens of thousands of dollars to the Barbary pirates for protection. We fought two wars with the pirates and finally brought peace to the shipping lanes in the Mediterranean.
The recent rescue of the American captain, Richard Phillips, by Navy Seals was the best way to resolve that issue. But piracy will continue because we simply do not have enough sea power to police all oceans. These pirates are outlaws who are most likely supported by some of the most vicious war lords in Somalia.
The nations of the world would be well advised to join in concerted action to encourage Somalia to police its own waters to stop the pirates by cutting off their home base.
An estimated total of $150 million and probably more was paid in ransom to pirates last year. Cargo ships may be big, slow moving and loaded with valuable cargo. They are mostly unarmed and usually have small crews not trained in how to combat pirates.
Individuals like Phillips have also been taken for ransom. Pirates are tempted to strike when opportunity appears and national retaliation seems unlikely.
This is a universal problem that affects the world at large. Piracy cannot be tolerated anywhere if we are to live in a civilized interdependent world.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.