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University of Basel

The international law expert and sea piracy.

Text: Christoph Dieffenbacher

When it comes to piracy and crime at sea, Anna Petrig, recently appointed Professor of International Law at the University of Basel, is very knowledgeable: the Swiss lawyer is regarded throughout the world as a sought-after expert in this subject. She also spends her free time on the water.

Prof. Dr. Anna Petrig. (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)
Prof. Dr. Anna Petrig. (Image: University of Basel, Andreas Zimmermann)

The office is still only sparsely furnished so soon after the election. Some children’s drawings are already hanging on the wall by the door. One of them is by three-year-old Ida and is supposed to be of a ship “although it looks more like a heart”, says Anna Petrig. Her daughter likes drawing, whereas Ida’s older brother, Till, prefers building things. In her drawing, Ida has portrayed what has been her mother’s research field for years now: deep sea shipping and the legal issues associated with it. Nowadays, her expert knowledge is in demand globally.

Shipping at risk

A pirate is generally pictured as a sinister, bearded man with a bandana, an eye patch and a wooden leg. This form of robbery, which was practiced for centuries, was suppressed and for a long time seemed to have been eliminated. However, in times of increasing trade and globalization, crime at sea has become highly topical again. Nine tenths of world trade is transported by sea today.

So how did a young woman from a landlocked country actually come to conduct research on this topic? Chance played a part, she recalls. She had just completed an internship at the ICRC in Geneva in 2008, when the UN Security Council passed a resolution to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia. The country itself was unable to take action against it. “That was the first ever international policemission to tackle crime at sea,” she tells us.

Military or police operation?

According to the UN resolution, human rights and international humanitarian law were to be respected in the fight against piracy off the Somali coast. Yet, the reference to the law of armed conflict perplexed the young lawyer: “This wasn’t an armed conflict situation, but rather a police operation.” Together with a colleague, she examined the legal problems surrounding that mission and published the first monograph onmodern piracy in English, which attracted a great deal of attention.

The offense of piracy is defined only vaguely, the lawyer tells us – broadly speaking as an act of violence or deprivation of liberty committed by the crew of one ship against that of another. Somali pirates prefer ships that are easy to seize, such as tankers. Petrig explains that today almost all merchant ships are protected by security firms and are therefore no longer attractive targets. What makes it difficult to eliminate piracy, the professor says, is that pirates are generally the last link in a longer chain, similar to smalltime drug dealers.

Under flags of convenience

What makes the law of the sea more complicated is that certain states are not even able to police their coastal waters. In legal terms, the state in which a ship is registered has responsibility on the high sea beyond the twelve-mile territorial waters. A large proportion of merchant ships sail under flags of convenience such as those granted, for example, by Panama or Liberia. Petrig thinks the legislation is actually quite detailed, but “a considerable number of flag states don’t enforce the standards, for instance regarding labor law or environmental regulations”.

In the meantime, Petrig has extended her field of research to encompass maritime security in general. A key question in this respect is, for example, whether human rights also have to be respected at sea. The lawyer is completely convinced that they should be, but due to the specific operational context there are still dozens of finer points to be clarified. What if a pirate who has been arrested has to be brought directly before a judge while still out at sea? Who is obliged to provide assistance to shipwreck victims if a ship is attacked by unmanned systems or from a long distance?

During our conversation about seafaring, piracy and law in international waters, a torrent of rain lashes against the high office windows. “It’s really pouring now,” the lawyer says with a laugh, closing the window quickly. The element of water in general seems to characterize our interview. Later, the professor goes on to tell me that as a member of a rowing club she gets out on the water whenever she can make time – in other words when work and family allow her to do so.

Her path to the legal profession was not mapped out in advance: her father, who had moved to Fribourg from Valais, was a teacher for children with special needs; her mother teaches creative drawing. It was Petrig’s early interest in politics that led her to study law. While still at school, she had taken part in and helped to organize the Federal Youth Session in Bern: “Then I told myself that you can’t go into politics until you understand something about the law.”

In her habilitation thesis she is currently addressing the question of how international law can be incorporated into Swiss national law. Her theory is that the domestic gateway provisions for accommodating international law in the national legal sphere are no longer fitting, as international law has changed so radically.

Student and member of the Constitutional Council

After graduating from high school, she traveled to China on the Trans-Siberian Railway, often staying with host families. Later, she also learned Russian. As a student she was involved in founding the Fribourg Young Socialists and held a seat for them in the Fribourg Constitutional Assembly: “That was an exciting time: I was able to put into practice what I’d heard in the lectures, for example in constitutional law. And I had the chance to deal with fundamental issues surrounding the organization of a community.”

After graduating from university, she decided – unlike some of her colleagues – to move away from politics to begin a career in research and do postgrad studies in the US. “At the time, it wasn’t possible to do both: research demands mobility and flexibility, which also appealed to me more,” she says. She was still politically active in the broader sense, working now and again for NGOs: “In politics you have to commit yourself to one place, you’re tied to interests and are supposed to have an opinion on everything straight away.” Reviewing an issue thoroughly and turning it over in her mind – that suits her better.

Anna Petrig was born in 1977, studied law in Fribourg (Switzerland) and Paris, gained an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and a doctorate in Basel in 2013. Prior to that she worked, among other things, as a guest researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg and in Lund (Sweden) and as assistant professor at the University of Zurich. As a member of the Constitutional Council, she was involved in the drafting of the constitution of the Canton of Fribourg.

More articles in the current issue of  UNI NOVA.

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