Why did Britain put a hold on U.N. sanctions against pirates?

It’s no news that piracy is big business. But what might surprise you is that it’s not always just the bucaneers themselves who profit. In addition to the Somalis involved in the game, some Londoners have made a handy living off the scourge in recent years. How? Negotiating those ransoms. Turns out, it’s pretty lucrative ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images

It's no news that piracy is big business. But what might surprise you is that it's not always just the bucaneers themselves who profit. In addition to the Somalis involved in the game, some Londoners have made a handy living off the scourge in recent years. How? Negotiating those ransoms. Turns out, it's pretty lucrative to be a middle man between pirate and shipping company.

Which is in part why Britain is holding up U.N. planned sanctions against several pirates. Of course, the motivation isn't just the money; the motivation is getting hijack victims freed  --and as one man quoted in this Financial Times article puts it, "Nobody wants to pay ransoms. But when it’s the only option, what the hell else do you do?" Well, someone has to negotiate for the releases. And that's where London's finest contractors come in. 

So yes, piracy is a nasty trade. This touches on a much bigger issue, however, and a question that the international community has struggled to answer in its fight on piracy. Do you pay ransoms and get the victims back safely (no one has been harmed after paying up), or do you take a moral stance and stop paying? The latter approach is what most countries facing a threat of terror do -- a great example is Colombia, where the leftist FARC rebels still hold hundreds hostage at the government's (and the society's) collective refusal to pay. But that's pretty hard to enforce in international waters, where no country is sovereign, no single society can come to consensus, and a lucrative industry has obviously sprung up. 

It’s no news that piracy is big business. But what might surprise you is that it’s not always just the bucaneers themselves who profit. In addition to the Somalis involved in the game, some Londoners have made a handy living off the scourge in recent years. How? Negotiating those ransoms. Turns out, it’s pretty lucrative to be a middle man between pirate and shipping company.

Which is in part why Britain is holding up U.N. planned sanctions against several pirates. Of course, the motivation isn’t just the money; the motivation is getting hijack victims freed  –and as one man quoted in this Financial Times article puts it, "Nobody wants to pay ransoms. But when it’s the only option, what the hell else do you do?" Well, someone has to negotiate for the releases. And that’s where London’s finest contractors come in. 

So yes, piracy is a nasty trade. This touches on a much bigger issue, however, and a question that the international community has struggled to answer in its fight on piracy. Do you pay ransoms and get the victims back safely (no one has been harmed after paying up), or do you take a moral stance and stop paying? The latter approach is what most countries facing a threat of terror do — a great example is Colombia, where the leftist FARC rebels still hold hundreds hostage at the government’s (and the society’s) collective refusal to pay. But that’s pretty hard to enforce in international waters, where no country is sovereign, no single society can come to consensus, and a lucrative industry has obviously sprung up. 

If you needed more evidence that there is no way to stop piracy under current international law, this is as good as it gets. It’s also one of the great ironies of these international times: We can all agree to send naval vessels to play cop off Somalia’s coast. But actually stopping the flow of money? Now that’s another story. 

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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