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A Catch-and-Release Policy for Pirates

This is a story that is almost unbelievable — except that those of us who have been following the battle against piracy know it is all too commonplace:

A group of suspected Somali pirates detained on a Dutch warship has been released because no country has agreed to prosecute them. …

The suspects were seized in the Indian Ocean two weeks ago after allegedly attempting to attack a cargo ship.

They were put back on their own speedboat with some food and fuel.

What then, is the point, of the U.S. and other nations sending its warships to patrol the coast of East Africa if they’re going to simply release the captured culprits? The legal authority to imprison and even execute them is strong. In fact, the “doctrine of universal jurisdiction” — nowadays used to snare war criminals and Israeli leaders — was originally developed to deal with pirates, who were declared “hostes humani generis,” or common enemies of mankind. States going back to the days of the Roman Empire exercised the right to capture and execute captured pirates. The U.S., Britain, and other nations made ample use of this authority to stamp out the last major outbreak of piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

But today we have become unwilling to subject these banditos to the most elementary justice. The U.S. and other nations had hoped that Kenya would try the pirates, but in this case — and many others — the Kenyan authorities aren’t obliging. So why aren’t the U.S. and other nations stepping forward to try the pirates in their own courts? A variety of excuses will be advanced; reportedly the British are even worried about the cutthroats claiming “refugee” status. But ultimately it comes down to a failure of will. Until the so-called civilized nations muster the courage to act decisively, the plague of piracy will continue.


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