What Powers Does Congress Have Concerning Piracy & International Law in Government?
- The Constitution empowers Congress "To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations," and to create rules about land and water captures. Congress has used that power to define piracy as the act of robbery or hijacking ships at sea or aircraft in international space. Federal laws regarding piracy appear in the U.S. Code, which requires life imprisonment for anyone convicted of piracy in a U.S. court.
Incidents of Piracy
- In the early 19th century, the United States worked with the governments of Great Britain and the Netherlands to eliminate pirates in the West Indies and the Barbary Coast of northwestern Africa. Congress enacted most of the piracy laws during that period. Piracy reappeared in the early 21st century in the Indian Ocean along the eastern coast of Africa. In 2009 and 2010, the U.S. invoked its authority to capture several Somalian pirates who had taken American ships. U.S. courts tried and convicted those pirates and sentenced them to life in prison.
Treaties and International Law
- Groups of nations create international law by adopting treaties. A treaty is an agreement among two or more nations to conduct or prohibit certain activities, such as trade, peaceful relations, standards of behavior, or mutual protection. The U.S. Constitution gives the president the power to negotiate treaties but those treaties are not valid until the Senate ratifies them. The Senate often influences the terms of treaties by requesting changes in those terms while debating whether to ratify them.
The Constitution's Supremacy Clause states that the Constitution, all laws made under it, and all treaties are the "supreme law of the land," that all state judges must abide by those laws and treaties, and that no state can enact contradictory laws. That means that the United States recognizes as valid the treaties that create international law. Therefore, every treaty ratified by the Senate is just as valid as any other law adopted by Congress as a whole. The U.S. has adopted countless treaties in its more than 200 years, including the 1948 treaty that established the United Nations. Subsequent U.N. treaties, including the establishment of the World Court, comprise the bulk of international law.
Commerce and Ambassadors
- The Constitution also gives Congress the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations." That includes regulating, limiting and placing tariffs on imported and exported products. The Senate has the power to confirm certain presidential appointments, including ambassadors. An ambassador is the United States' official representative in a foreign nation. Her duty is to protect U.S. interests and citizens in that country. The Senate also confirms the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. International law recognizes each nation's authority to regulate its own international commerce and appoint its own ambassadors.