Thursday, April 16, 2009

Battling pirates in international waters will take an international effort

Pirates operating off the coast of Somalia have been growing bolder. Last year over a third of all reported incidents of piracy around the world occurred in the Gulf of Aden alone. And they are not just attacking fishermen or pleasure boaters but large container ships interrupting international commerce. They rob and take hostages. Currently there are approximately 250 merchant sailors from many different countries being held for ransom by the Somali pirates.

It would be a mistake to glorify these pirates as political terrorists. They are not. They are criminals engaged in what is becoming a sophisticated criminal operation. While the U.S. response this past week to the attack on the American flagged merchant ship, Maersk Alabama, might be seen as a model for dealing with the pirates it is important to remember this was just a single incident in a region where these incidents are hundreds of miles apart.

If international law is not clear it should be clarified to allow civilian seamen to defend their ships with arms if necessary or allow the posting of armed guards on ships. But more importantly there needs to be a united front by the international community on both policy dealing with the pirates and the enforcement of international law protecting shipping by various navies of the world. We should not allow the pirates and their criminal syndicates to turn this into a political issue of the West (i.e., so far, the United States and France) attacking third world people.

Fred Kaplan has these thoughts:
… Many have drawn comparisons between the Somalis and the Barbary pirates of yore. But the Barbary corsairs, as they were also called, were a far greater and more expansive threat, spanning from the North African coast out into the Mediterranean and sporadically the North Atlantic. Between the 16th and early 19th centuries, they captured more than 800,000 Europeans and sold many of them on the Algerian and Moroccan slave markets. In the early 1800s, the U.S. government—having won independence from Britain and thus having lost the British fleet's protection—found itself spending one-fifth of its annual budget for ransom to pirates who captured its ships and crewmen.

The rest of the story is well-known. President Thomas Jefferson, who had negotiated terms of ransom with the pirate-dominated Moroccan government while ambassador to France, built a navy and sent in the Marines. (The "shores of Tripoli," in the Marine Corps' anthem, refers to their rescue of merchant crews from pirates in Libya.) Meanwhile, the British and Dutch launched heavy bombardment campaigns in Algiers. Finally, in 1830 the French conquered Algeria, and that was pretty much the end of the Barbary pirates.

It's very unlikely that President Barack Obama or any other world leader would pummel, much less colonize, Somalia today. The scope of the threat, though not to be trivialized, is nothing like that of Barbary days. Memories of Black Hawk Down, as well as troop commitments elsewhere, should stave off fantasies of a "cake walk" through Mogadishu. Nor do Europeans seem to be hankering for a revival of foreign adventurism.

Some, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, say that the roots of Somali piracy lie in the lawlessness of Somalia itself and that the problem won't be fully solved until that country has a strong, stable government. This may be true, but it's a dead-end observation. What to do while waiting for a Mogadishu messiah?

There are some realistic options—SEAL snipers being one of them—and a less-remembered chapter of the Barbary saga offers a pertinent framework.

In 1815, the great nations of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—assembled the Congress of Vienna to forge a new balance of power in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. (More than 200 smaller states and principalities attended the session, as well.) One of the initial motives for holding the congress was to condemn, and coordinate a common policy on, the European slave trade along the Barbary Coast. It was after the congress formed that the Europeans and Americans stopped paying ransom and took action.

Perhaps it's time for another Congress of Vienna, this one amid the instabilities brought on by the end of the Cold War. The parallel is imperfect, to say the least. No Metternichs or Bismarcks strut the global stage today. Nor does any handful of nations seem willing or able to carve out and command "spheres of influence" that keep the rest of the world in subjugated equilibrium.

However, the new assemblage could at least begin by dealing with the Somali pirate problem. The framework for cooperation is already in place. International law has long regarded theft on the high seas as a scourge transcending the normal rules of national sovereignty. Piracy, in fact, inspired the concept of "universal jurisdiction," which allows any nation-state to take action against transgressors, even if it is not a victim of the crime. (In this case, any state is allowed to arrest and prosecute pirates, even if the ship they've pirated is flying another country's flag.) This principle has since been codified in the 1958 Convention on the High Seas and the United Nations' 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Every state has a vested interest in this cause. The Somali pirates have captured merchant ships owned not just by the United States and Western European nations but also by Ukraine, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Nor is this issue complicated by ideology or sectarianism. The Barbary pirates at least saw, or justified, their actions as political struggle, stemming from Catholic Spain's conquest of Grenada, which forced the exile of the Moors (the name at the time for Muslims), who retaliated by attacking Spanish boats, a practice subsequently supported—and gradually dominated—by the sultan of the Ottoman empire. The Moors and their descendants, in this sense, were the Islamist radicals of their time.

The Somali pirates, by contrast, are simply bandits. They are in fact held in contempt by most of the Islamist gangs that hang out elsewhere along Somalia's coast—though some of these gangs have formed mafia-style alliances offering protection in exchange for a share of the loot. (The extent, or durability, of these relationships is unclear.)

In other words, piracy could be a wedge issue in President Obama's quest for mutual interests between Western and Muslim nations.


The fight against the Somali pirates is not, nor should it be presented as, a campaign in the "war on terror" or any euphemism that the Obama administration might want to substitute for the phrase. Nor is it a battle for Western civilization. In this sense, proposals to deploy naval convoys, as was done in World War II to defend trans-Atlantic freighters from Nazi submarines, similarly miss the mark. These pirates aren't Nazis; their acts aren't sowing a crisis of existential proportion; to suggest otherwise only puffs up their image and perhaps their prestige and bargaining power among other anti-Western outlaws. These pirates are nasty criminals, nothing more. And the fight against them should be treated, and seen, as a routine and legitimate procedure to stamp out nasty crime.
You can read his entire article here.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

If not now a multinational effort to address the world's problems, then when?