Crisis in the Red Sea: Does the International Law Protect Against UAV Attacks & Other Forms of Maritime Terrorism in the High Seas?

The Red Sea is in turmoil. As a result of the conflict in Gaza, the rebel group – Houthis, in support of Hamas, has started attacking commercial vessels in the Red Sea. These attacks may have a severe adverse effect on global trade. This is because Red Sea is the only route to the Suez Canal. Consequently, the Red Sea region handles about 12% if the global sea-borne trade. Hence, to safeguard this important trade-route, the United States has recently launched Operation Prosperity Guardian.

In light of the current tumultuous situation, international law can play a vital role in addressing the emerging concerns of maritime terrorism, especially as drone technology becomes more accessible and is used in sinister ways.

What are Drones?

Drones are generally unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs (unmanned surface vehicles, autonomous underwater vehicles etc. are also included within the category of drones). This means that they are controlled remotely. The history of unmanned aerial vehicles goes back to the 1700s. They have been utilised by states for a plethora of purposes since World War I, limited not only to surveillance but also for attacking enemy aircrafts. However, a new usage of the drone has recently emerged. The Russia-Ukraine war saw the use of aerial and  maritime drones for attacking enemy ships. Now, the use of drones by Houthi rebels to attack merchant vessels in the Red Sea brings out the question of attribution of criminality in case of drone-attacks by non-state actors on vessels on the high seas.

What does International Law say?

The primary international document dealing with international maritime security is the United Nation Convention on Law of Seas (UNCLOS). While the Convention does not explicitly deal with attacks by UAVs on ships, Article 101 defines “piracy”. The Article criminalises acts of illegal depredation committed for “private ends” by the crew or passengers of a private ship if such an act is committed outside the jurisdiction of any State on the seas. In certain instances this definition will include attacks by UAVs since the mode of attack is not specified. The only requirement for a drone attack to come within the ambit of “piracy” then is for the drone to be operated by the crew or passengers aboard a private ship. However, considering current technological advancements, that allow drones to operate over higher ranges, it is entirely possible that UAVs operating from land and not from ships may be used to attack vessels sailing on the high seas. This would exclude such UAVs from the ambit of UNCLOS. Another complexity would arise in case of attacks by non-state actors such as the Houthis. The sub-element “committed for private ends” has two broad interpretations.1 While one interpretation excludes non-state “political ends” from the ambit of private ends, the other interpretation only includes actions committed for financial gain within its ambit. Therefore, the inclusion of actions by non-state actors, if motivated by political ends (in the case of Houthis, in support of Hamas) is doubtful in the definition of piracy.

An important Convention that takes drone attacks by non-state actors within its ambit is the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA Convention). Article 3 of the SUA Convention criminalised those acts that causes destruction to a ship or cause damage to a ship. In case of the latter, the damage should be of such a nature that it endangers safe navigation of the ship. The Convention text sets the stage for a legal mechanism for criminalisation of unlawful acts by including within its ambit matters related to establishment of jurisdiction; extradition to appropriate states and steps to be taken by States to facilitate prevention. However, the SUA Convention currently has only thirty-nine ratifications/accessions. The lack of a large number of ratifications almost completely annihilates the effectiveness of the Convention. This is because, in most cases, treaties require ratification by States to demonstrate their consent to be bound by that particular treaty. A potential reason for the lack of ratifications might be that maritime terrorism actually accounts for a very small percentage of armed violence. Therefore currently, there does not exist an effective legal framework that specifically deals with maritime terrorism and consequently, attack on sea vessels by drones such as UAVs.

In absence of an effective legal framework, multilateral security initiatives like Operation Prosperity Guardian (such operations are mandated by UNSC Resolution 1371(2001)) become the only method to curb maritime terrorism. While these security initiatives provide an immediate solution to the problem at hand, the lack of a universally agreed upon Convention often leads to human right violations. For example, the interrogation techniques used on the accused in a U.S. Operation, “The Global War on Terror”, launched in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks have been deemed as torture.  In the U.S. led “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, the interference of the coalition forces led to civil unrest  as well as several human right violations  in Iraq. Furthermore, it created conditions for the rise of Al-Qaeda. Moreover, such multilateral initiatives do not guarantee participation of countries who might put other obligations first. Many US Allies have not joined Operation Prosperity Guardian due to various reasons.

However, a binding Convention, negotiated and agreed upon by involved State Parties, taking into account the interplay of multiple factors, will offer a more nuanced security regime that is in line with international rule of law.

The Need of the Hour

In an evolving maritime security sphere as non-state actors also get their hands on sophisticated technologies, it is high-time that the prevention of acts of maritime terrorism such as drone attacks get the necessary attention. The initiative needs to be taken by countries along major shipping routes whose territories may be used for facilitating such attacks.

The first step would be the ratification of the SUA Convention. Furthermore, the provisions relating to extradition in it can also be made stricter. For example, the political offence exception can be removed in certain cases where there is a serious loss of life or property. Article 13 of the SUA Convention also has provisions that mandate exchange of information and coordination amongst nations for prevention of commission of offences listed in the Convention. However, such exchange/cooperation is to be done in accordance with “national laws”. Regional maritime security arrangements amongst countries that are along volatile and busy sea-routes tailored to circumvent any bureaucratic delays will ensure better implementation of this Article and facilitate quicker exchange of information. As information exchange becomes quicker, prevention of crimes will become easier, which will ultimately lead to better protection of the concerned sea route. This is especially true in cases where the actions are land-based and are being taken from the territory of a particular State.

There is also the need to take into account the problem of state-sponsored terrorism. In the case of Houthis, the U.S. has levied accusations against Iran, alleging financial support to the terrorist outfit. However the same has been denied by Iran. In cases where there is proven sponsoring of maritime terrorism by states, treaties for facilitating economic sanctions may be useful in disincentivising support. Such methods have been utilised in the past to discourage state funding of terrorism.2


The current fiasco in the Red Sea has compelled many shippers to take longer but safer sea-routes to complete their journeys. This will increase costs of transportation and cause delays. Furthermore, as technology becomes more ubiquitous, there is a possibility that drones might be used by politically motivated non-state actors to attack boats carrying asylum seekers or migrants. With prejudice against refugees on the rise, there have been instances of attacks on boats carrying asylum seekers and migrants These attacks however, if not done with political intent, may come within the ambit of piracy. On the other hand, politically motivated drone attacks by non-state actors committed from land will not, due to the previously mentioned reasons. A strong legal framework that deals with maritime terrorism, while including within its ambit newer forms of technology, will increase confidence of shippers and traders. Simultaneously it will ensure that grave human right violations on the sea are prevented. Furthermore, it will also ensure that rule of law is upheld while action against maritime terrorism is taken. 


1.  Maritime Crime: A Manual for Criminal Justice Practitioners (2nd edn, UNODC, Vienna 2019) 109-123.

2.  Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, ‘The United Nations & the Campaign Against Terrorism’ (2004) 1 Disarmament Forum 29.