School of Law

PhD Study Explores Law of the Sea off South Africa

Academic Dr Vishal Surbun’s interest in the niche field of Maritime Law has led to him joining the ranks of only a handful of scholars with doctoral degrees on the law of the sea off South Africa.

Surbun is also the first PhD graduate produced by UKZN’s Unit for Maritime Law and Maritime Studies.

A surge in incidents of maritime piracy worldwide spurred Surbun to explore the legal implications of these crimes through research titled: Piracy Jure Gentium in Territorial Seas: A Perspective from the East African Seaboard.

The study supervised by Dr Paul Swanepoel closely examined the concept of universal enforcement jurisdiction and proposed a model to extend this unique jurisdiction into the territorial waters of coastal states. The proposals presented models from international and uniquely African perspectives.

‘Against the background of attacks by pirates on global commercial shipping off the East African seaboard, international navies were restricted to supressing acts committed on the high seas,’ said Surbun.

‘However, many attacks occurred in the territorial waters of coastal states, particularly Somalia, which exercises sovereign jurisdiction over those waters.’

As 90% of all international trade takes place through global shipping, Surbun’s research plays a critical role in contributing knowledge to this field because maritime security is vital to a prosperous blue economy.

Surbun’s research was wide-ranging from examining contemporary challenges to maritime security in Africa to delving deep into archives. One of the highlights was unearthing the only case in South Africa prosecuting pirates in the nineteenth century.

‘My studies took me to examine works of African scholars and politicians who forged some of the first measures to decolonise the law of the sea. I went to Sweden where I met historians who examined the historical aspects of piracy from different parts of the world.

‘I presented my study at the three-minute thesis competition held by the College of Law and Management Studies and won first prize.

‘Due to the prominence of piracy in popular culture, my study generated an overwhelming interest from my own students, colleagues and the public,’ said Surbun.

As a young academic and amateur calligrapher, Surbun enjoys sharing research and writing skills with his students.

‘The maritime field is niched and highly specialised and I have a lifetime of research and teaching ahead of me. The skills I developed within myself during the PhD process will give me the confidence and capacity to continue with such pursuits.

‘UKZN’s Unit for Maritime Law and Maritime Studies has the largest and most well established maritime law programme in South Africa, with significant input and links from local and foreign maritime lawyers. Being a lecturer in this Unit, my qualification will enhance the pedigree of our staff profile,’ said Surbun.

Words: Thandiwe Jumo