- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 10, 2009

In the midst of the drama that unfolded in the Indian Ocean over the aborted hijacking of the Maersk Alabama and the kidnapping of Captain Richard Phillips, the New York Post ran a front-page photo of actor Johnny Depp dressed in the regalia of the Disney pirate of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Academics can sniff at the tabloid sensationalism of the editorial choice, but the Post knew its audience; most Americans have a mental image of pirates that closer approximates the fictional Jack Sparrow than the scrawny and hardened Third World teenagers who today help make up the ranks of high seas criminals.

The image evoked by the Post is an artifact of both our history and our popular culture, and makes it that much more difficult to recognize the level of threat presented by modern pirates.

But the threat is real, and statistics tell the tale: 41 attacks in the waters off Somalia in 2007, 111 attacks in 2008 and 66 attacks since January 2009. Somali pirates and their associates are reported to be holding more than 12 ships and more than 200 non-American crew as hostages to ransom demands. Between January 2003 and December 2008, there were 1,845 pirate attacks reported worldwide. That is an average of one attack per day, somewhere in the world.

Piracy is an international problem, in several dimensions, exemplified by the nature of the tracking agency set up to monitor it. The International Maritime Bureau (IMB), located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is part of the International Chamber of Commerce, a nongovernmental international organization.

For over a decade, the Piracy Reporting Bureau of the IMB has been recognized as the best source of reporting on pirate activity. The IMB has online a “live” piracy map, showing the locations of actual, recent attacks and attempted attacks.

The fact that it is left to a nongovernmental international organization to consistently collect and report data on pirate activity and to issue warnings to ships and owners indicates that policymakers in Washington, embedded in a cultural environment characterized by popular lack of awareness and lack of understanding of the problem, are not the only ones who have long put the piracy problem on a lower rung of priority than it deserves. Policymakers in other capitals, to a greater or lesser extent than their U.S. counterparts, have done the same.

Part of the reason that piracy has been accorded lower priority than an activity such as interdicting the smuggling of oil out of Iraq (when Saddam Hussein was in power) or smuggling weapons into Iraq is that pirates are considered mere criminals not connected with the greater forces of contention between nation states. The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas, of which the U.S. is a party, recognizes that an act committed against a ship or plane need not be committed purely as an act of greed in order to qualify as piracy: The phrase in Article 15 of the convention is that piracy is “… any act of depredation, committed for private ends …”

If pirates are indeed an unacceptable danger to our way of life, what should we do about them?

Different answers to this question abound.

Nonviolent strategies can include both proactive and passive elements, and no doubt several methods could be combined:

• Avoid the area; don’t give the pirates anything to attack.

• Increase humanitarian assistance to Somalia and under the auspices of the United Nations; do some nation-building in Somalia to eliminate the reasons why Somalis become pirates.

• Negotiate in advance with the pirates and pay them off for safe passage.

• Create international convoys so that every commercial ship going through the area has an overwhelming deterrent against piracy.

• Train ship crews better so that at the first sign of trouble they can call for help and go into a protective stance, disabling the ship and securing themselves so as to out wait their would-be captors.

There are probably more nonviolent strategies that can be suggested, but the above are prominent ones and suffice for examination of the general approach.

The first approach requires that “the area” that civilian ships avoid be defined. Based on the live piracy map of the International Maritime Bureau, “the area” would include several large and strategic parts of our globe.

In addition to the Somali coast, the Gulf of Aden, and a large swath of the Indian Ocean, it would also include the Malacca Straits, a significant patch of water off the west coast of Africa, and much of the Caribbean. In order to avoid the area ships would have to give up the centuries old and hard-won principle of free passage; the concept of the “high seas” would be severely eroded. Costly, convoluted routes would have to be plotted, with significant economic drag developing.

One estimate regarding avoiding the domain of the Somali pirates puts the additional cost diverting around the Cape of Good Hope at approximately $40,000 per day over an additional eight to 10 more days.

The last time we tried upgrading humanitarian assistance to Somalia, the mission got blurred as a byproduct of a change in U.S. administrations, and we ended up with Black Hawk Down, the Clinton administration’s Bay of Pigs.

An upgraded effort need not descend to the depths it did in 1993, but remember, we are dealing with the same culture, the same chaotic situation; a well-organized humanitarian effort would immediately carry the perpetrators of it into nation-building and into direct conflict with the Islamicists. Moreover, the United Nations has a deplorable track record in these things; from taking a Pilate stance to the genocide in Rwanda-Burundi to the fraud of the Oil for Food Program in Iraq, the United Nations has often been part of the problem rather than part of a viable solution.

Shipping companies could borrow a tactic from the Romans who bought off the Barbarians and negotiate advance payments for safe passage; no doubt this would simply be a cost of doing business and be written off as a kind of environmental toll, eliminating the companies’ purported toxic footprints. After all, public statements by some pirates and sympathizers put it out that the pirates are acting as Somalia’s de facto coast guard, and, as one pirate is quoted as saying by Al Jazeera, the ransoms that the pirates demand are “reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years.”

Assuming that Somali pirates, at least some of them, are bona fide in self-describing their role as a “coast guard,” would payments from shipping companies be put to any practical use in cleaning up waste or preventing overfishing in Somalia’s fisheries? In the short term, all protection rackets sound like a good call to avoid the unpleasantness that the payee is ostensibly keeping from being visited on the payer; but at some point, the demands for payment and the ways in which the demands are visited upon the payee usually become onerous.

International convoys, perhaps arranged over specific narrow lanes of passage, might provide an answer, but such convoys would require a significant number of ships, at quite an expense to public budgets, in an era when many nations have downsized their navies.

As to training crews better, it is clear that maritime academies have already done a good job, if the evidence of the successful defensive actions undertaken by the crews of the Maersk Alabama and the Liberty Sun is any indication.

However, continuous improvement is a good principle to employ, and in fact, at State University of New York Maritime College, we are compliant with all Standards of Training, Certification and Watchstanding requirements.

So if passive/aggressive nonviolent approaches are not viable means to put an end to piracy, how should we proceed?

My recommendation is that we use our intelligence agencies to good effect; if news correspondents can contact the pirates in Somalia and tell us who they are, one imagines, it is not beyond the capabilities of the various intelligence agencies of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and India to compile names and locations.

Then, in quick, well-supported commando operations or by using drones as the CIA has done so successfully against al Qaeda leaders, seek out the pirates and kill them or grab them where possible and put them on trial.

Somalia no longer exists as a nation state. For some foreign policy purposes, the U.S. and other nations have maintained the fiction that it still exists; but, the “government” to which we accord representatives’ diplomatic credentials controls only a few square miles, and that control doesn’t even extend throughout the capital city of Mogadishu.

In fact, there is such a state of chaos in Somalia that it would appear that even the customary international law of belligerency cannot easily be applied, meaning that no contending group can reasonably be accorded limited status as an “international personality,” to which we could then apply the normal rules of war.

Because Somalia is no longer a nation state, Somali waters are no longer territorial waters but fall under the regime of the high seas. All nations in both customary and treaty law have the authority to hunt down pirates outside the territorial jurisdiction of another nation state. In a systematic fashion, coordinated with willing allies and well-supported by intelligence and military assets, that is what we should do with the Somali pirates.

Regarding pirates in other parts of the world, each situational context requires careful evaluation, but all pirates deserve higher priority than what they have been getting.

Larry Howard is a professor and chairman of the Department of Global Business and Transportation at the State University of New York Maritime College. This article is excerpted from a paper titled “In Hot Pursuit of Pirates” with the permission of the author.

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