Commentary Magazine


Topic: East Africa

Prosecuting Pirates

It’s nice to read in the Wall Street Journal that more shipping companies are embarking armed security guards to protect their ships off the coast of Somalia. That will certainly strike a blow against the pirates who had another record year in 2009. But the Journal also notes that “the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it ‘poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions,’ says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp.”

It is incumbent upon shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels. But it is also incumbent upon the world’s leading state to do more to safeguard maritime commerce. All the warships cruising off the coast of East Africa can accomplish little as long as they lack the legal authority to treat pirates as combatants rather than as potential criminal suspects. This is yet another instance where the Obama administration (like the Bush administration before it) insists on using normal legal safeguards in a situation where they don’t apply. That makes it impossible for our naval ships to blow pirates out of the water or bombard their lairs on land. Even when caught, most pirates are released because there is no desire to try them in our courts — or those of Western Europe. This would be another excellent use for the terrorist tribunals set up by Congress because pirates are, after all, another species of international rogue. Their activities are, in fact, often indistinguishable from those of terrorists, who also use criminal schemes to finance their operations. But what chance is there that we will get tough with Somalian buccaneers if we are extending the full panoply of constitutional rights even to the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad?

It’s nice to read in the Wall Street Journal that more shipping companies are embarking armed security guards to protect their ships off the coast of Somalia. That will certainly strike a blow against the pirates who had another record year in 2009. But the Journal also notes that “the majority of the international maritime community resists using lethal force because it ‘poses incredible logistical challenges, potentially violates many national and international laws, and is contrary to maritime conventions,’ says James Christodoulou, chief executive of Industrial Shipping Enterprises Corp.”

It is incumbent upon shipping companies to do more to protect their vessels. But it is also incumbent upon the world’s leading state to do more to safeguard maritime commerce. All the warships cruising off the coast of East Africa can accomplish little as long as they lack the legal authority to treat pirates as combatants rather than as potential criminal suspects. This is yet another instance where the Obama administration (like the Bush administration before it) insists on using normal legal safeguards in a situation where they don’t apply. That makes it impossible for our naval ships to blow pirates out of the water or bombard their lairs on land. Even when caught, most pirates are released because there is no desire to try them in our courts — or those of Western Europe. This would be another excellent use for the terrorist tribunals set up by Congress because pirates are, after all, another species of international rogue. Their activities are, in fact, often indistinguishable from those of terrorists, who also use criminal schemes to finance their operations. But what chance is there that we will get tough with Somalian buccaneers if we are extending the full panoply of constitutional rights even to the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad?

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Pirate Payoff

Am I the only one outraged upon reading that a Singapore-based shipping line has just paid a $4 million ransom to Somali pirates for the release of one of its container ships, the Kota Wajar? The world barely notices; the news is relegated to a minor paragraph buried on the inside pages of the newspapers in the usual “world news” roundups. We ought to be more concerned because the waters off East Africa are an important transit point for global shipping, and every ransom paid makes it more likely that ships will be hijacked in future. In fact, the very day that the Kota Wajar was released, two more vessels were seized — a British-flagged chemical tanker and a Panama-flagged bulk cargo ship. Not surprising, paying off pirates encourages more piracy.

Yet Western nations refuse to sanction shipping lines for their amoral policy or to undertake a more robust response — such as ordering naval ships to fire on suspected pirates or hauling captured pirates into their own courts. Keep in mind that these seizures occur in the Gulf of Aden near the coast not only of Somalia but also of Yemen, two countries emerging as major al-Qaeda bases. No doubt some of the piratical proceeds will find their way into the terrorists’ pockets, if they haven’t already. Where’s the outrage?

Am I the only one outraged upon reading that a Singapore-based shipping line has just paid a $4 million ransom to Somali pirates for the release of one of its container ships, the Kota Wajar? The world barely notices; the news is relegated to a minor paragraph buried on the inside pages of the newspapers in the usual “world news” roundups. We ought to be more concerned because the waters off East Africa are an important transit point for global shipping, and every ransom paid makes it more likely that ships will be hijacked in future. In fact, the very day that the Kota Wajar was released, two more vessels were seized — a British-flagged chemical tanker and a Panama-flagged bulk cargo ship. Not surprising, paying off pirates encourages more piracy.

Yet Western nations refuse to sanction shipping lines for their amoral policy or to undertake a more robust response — such as ordering naval ships to fire on suspected pirates or hauling captured pirates into their own courts. Keep in mind that these seizures occur in the Gulf of Aden near the coast not only of Somalia but also of Yemen, two countries emerging as major al-Qaeda bases. No doubt some of the piratical proceeds will find their way into the terrorists’ pockets, if they haven’t already. Where’s the outrage?

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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.

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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