Think Again

Think Again: Pirates

More than 20 countries are joining a special U.S.-led naval force to combat pirates off the coast of Somalia. But it won’t be warships that defeat these modern-day sea dogs.


Piracy Is Making a Comeback

No, it never went away. The world has lived with piracy for millennia, and efforts to clean up the seas have never been truly successful. If anything, a rise in piracy has simply kept pace with the growth in international shipping. There are more targets, and thus more incidents — on average, about 275 attacks around the world annually for the past several years. True, the string of hijackings off the coast of Somalia in recent months has taken the phenomenon to new heights of drama. It is hard to believe that a Ukrainian ship loaded with weapons and a Saudi oil tanker carrying $100 million worth of oil could fall victim to a couple of Somali skiffs, as both did last fall. But it isn’t hard to do when Somali pirates have an army of wishful recruits ready to fill their ranks. Piracy is an industry with very few barriers to entry.

What has changed is the geography of piracy. Up until 1994, the roughly 300 annual reports of piracy and armed robbery against ships were distributed fairly evenly throughout the world. With the growth of China’s exports to Europe and imports from the Middle East, international trade greatly increased — 90 percent of it moving by sea. In the latter half of the 1990s, piracy increased in key shipping lanes in the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, and the Indian Ocean. During the past five years, pirate waters have shifted away from Southeast Asia to both coasts of Africa.

In all cases, the problem is rooted in poor governance onshore. There has been no effective government to control illicit groups or patrol waters in Somalia since the 1991 collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime. In the years since, foreign fishing trawlers have increasingly encroached on Somali waters, decimating the local fishing industry and spawning the plague of piracy to defend Somali waters (one pirate group even calls itself the coast guard). Unlike in West Africa, where hijacking occurs close to shore, Somali pirates track down their prey hundreds of miles from the coast. The Saudi oil tanker hijacked on Nov. 15 was 420 nautical miles from shore. Somalia is the hot spot for now, but pirates will likely crop up wherever coastlines and failed states align.

Pirates Are Terrorists

Not yet. Piracy is armed robbery at sea, but it isn’t terrorism. It is more akin to carjacking than to car-bombing. Yes, pirates target civilians, but not to instill fear; it’s to make money. Somali pirates’ business model of holding ships, cargo, and crew hostage until shipping companies pay million-dollar ransoms has proven to be lucrative, raking in more than $150 million last year, according to Kenya’s foreign minister. One of the reasons companies pay these ransoms is because of the implicit guarantee that ships, cargo, and crew are left unharmed. So serious are the pirates about keeping their end of the deal that an illicit catering industry has sprung up in Somalia to care for and feed the hostages while awaiting ransom.

Piracy is better compared to organized crime. The enterprise employs thousands: commando-like pirates who hijack the ships, international negotiators who secure payments, and logistic supporters who supply food, fuel, and weapons. Like other illicit networks, pirates have a faster learning curve than governments. During the past five years, pirates have readily harnessed off-the-shelf technology such as satellite phones, night-vision goggles, and GPS. They successfully combine this technology with simple weapons such as knives, AK-47 assault rifles, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The shipping industry — not to the mention the world’s navies — has yet to catch up. Right now, there are at least 14 ships being held hostage in Somali waters; 250 crew members from around the world are waiting for ransoms to be paid.

Armed Merchant Ships Are the Answer

Wrong. Arming crews or deploying security teams on merchant ships won’t prevent hijacking, but it is guaranteed to escalate violence. So far, pirates have not harmed their hostages or sunk captured vessels. Fighting back will certainly change this. Armed crews will also create higher insurance rates for ships as the risk of damage to vessels and cargo increases. Already, companies’ need to buy kidnapping insurance for their crews and cargo has raised costs by half a percent, and that number is sure to rise. Greater costs will also follow if the risk of pirates forces ships to avoid the Suez Canal and transit around South Africa — a far longer, less fuel-efficient journey.

Protective measures such as barbed wire, improved early warning radar, nonlethal fire hoses, and long-range audio devices are the best — and least expensive — way to repel attackers. Pirate attacks have been easily frustrated when their targets have increased speed, removed boarding ladders, and taken evasive maneuvers. Compare these simple measures with the no less than 70 warships that would be necessary to protect commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Safe escort from an international coalition might work to protect humanitarian ships bringing desperately needed food shipments into Somalia. But a few antipirate warships in the region from Europe, China, and India — with none coordinating — would have little effect on the problem for the vast majority of commercial ships.

If Captured, Pirates Could Easily Be Tried for Their Crimes

Guess again. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea notes that every State may seize a pirate ship or aircraft… and arrest the persons. Yet, no single country has jurisdiction over international waters — where many of the recent hijackings have taken place. More importantly, no country wants to prosecute pirates in their domestic court system for fear those arrested might request asylum. That concern is particularly acute when it comes to Somali pirates desperate to flee the dismal conditions in the Horn of Africa. Most captured pirates end up being released.

To fill the judicial vacuum, Egypt has called for the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute pirates. There is sufficient international law to bring charges, but there are no courts, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or investigators dedicated to the task. And as other international tribunals on war crimes have illustrated, this path will create its own set of challenges. With the international community stepping up land and naval activities to combat piracy, the legal void will have to be filled or pirates will simply have to continue to be released. Just last week, France transferred custody of 8 pirates to the Puntland region of Somalia, which is home to pirate bases. In other words, don’t hold your breath for the pirates to walk a plank or remain locked forever in a brig.

The World Needs a War on Piracy

Absolutely not. Wars against commodities, tactics, or phenomena are rarely, if ever, truly won. Just look at the war on drugs, or the war on terror — both dragging on with hard-to-quantify results. Such wars misdirect scarce resources and cannot address underlying conditions. Under a war on piracy, merchant ships will still be hijacked and pirates will continue to extort money from commercial shipping companies.

Beyond the fact that absolute victory against piracy is a fallacy, there are the logistical problems. No country or naval coalition has the capacity to monitor the Gulf of Aden, an area four times the size of France. Vast amounts of intelligence — and moreover, intelligence swapping — are required to locate pirates. And most of the time, pirate ships do not stand out from other fishing vessels, so identification only comes after an attack has taken place.

All this comes at a time when naval budgets have shrunk to just a fraction of their former strength. U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famed 600-ship navy is down to 283, including submarines, and the British Royal Navy’s decline has left just 25 destroyers and frigates for action. There are well-identified pirate anchorages and towns in northern Somalia, but a land war into the country is not what the international community has in mind. Instead, with a smarter fight against the conditions onshore that foster piracy — the country’s instability, the illegal fishing that puts Somalis out of work — the world will come to find the high seas a great deal safer.

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