Making pirates hostes humani generis again

It be a Pirate Flag!
Image from Nick Humphries

“[L]ast year less than one-half of one percent of ships transiting the Horn of Africa were attacked, and most of those attacks were not successful.” Despite those low odds Max Boot goes on to argue in Pirates, Then and Now (Foreign Affairs subscription required) that governments should “make ship owners and insurers take the problem [of piracy] more seriously”. His reasoning is twofold: 1) piracy threatens sea lanes through which half the world’s cargo and a third of Europe’s oil is shipped; and 2) “piracy may wind up underwriting an extreme Islamist movement”. Granted, those are pretty serious stakes. However Boot refuses to do any sort of cost-benefit analysis to determine whether taking the problem “more seriously” is in our interest. He just seems to be itching to hang those scurvy seadogs.

Not to say that the article is pointless. It is a great read for his sweeping history of piracy from the 17th century and his overview of anti-piracy strategies to those from the age of sail. For example:

Countries took a dozen or so steps to safeguard the seas during the pirate wars that stretched roughly from 1650 to 1850. These included changing public attitudes, hiring private pirate hunters, rooting out corruption, improving the administration of justice, offering pardons to pirates who voluntarily surrendered, increasing the number of naval ships dedicated to antipiracy duty, cooperating with other nations, convoying merchant ships, blockading and bombarding pirate ports, chasing pirates both at sea and on land, and, finally, occupying and dismantling pirate lairs.

These days ship owners and insurance companies accept increased insurance premiums due to paying out million-dollar ransoms on that less than half of one percent of ships hijacked. It is probably cheaper than sending the navy in, and arming up crews will only escalate the violence, right? Boot replies:

Similar concerns once led airlines to tell crews not to resist hijackers. This approach changed after 9/11, and one hopes it will not take a similar disaster at sea for ship owners to reconsider their policies.

Boot suggests some policies that would help close the gap between modern times and the 17th century. First of all, the US and UK need to stop the shrinkage of their fleets and buy more warships (Boot recommends the LCS). Until the fleet gets back up to scratch, let private security companies fill the gap. That said, Boot thinks reviving letters of marque might be a step overboard (to coin a phrase). The biggest problem that needs tackling is the legal situation: there are no clear-cut rules of engagement. Pirates picked up by military forces are treated as civilians and the web of international human rights laws and conventions make prosecution convoluted. Much like terrorists, there exists no international criminal court for suspected pirates. As German defence minister Franz Josef Jung said: “No one wants a Guantánamo of the sea.”

In fact, I agree with Boot on all accounts. These are all good suggestions — especially the comments about preventing the deterioration of navies and the proposal for new laws for processing captured pirates. These things need to be done, regardless of the current craze over piracy. Note that I am agreeing in the general while disagreeing with Boot’s position as it is stated specifically in this article. It seems to me that Boot is too focused on piracy itself. It reminds me of how the security community a few years back was overly focused on “the terrorists”. Remember: terrorism is a tactic, not an entity. The same could be said of piracy. And like terrorism, tackling root causes could be more effective (and economic) than simply blasting each individual Blackbeard out of the water. Remember what Kaplan said: Anarchy on Land Means Piracy at Sea.

Related: Being realistic about maritime terrorism

About Younghusband

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942) was a British explorer, army officer, military-political officer, and foreign correspondent born in India who led expeditions into Manchuria, Kashgar, and Tibet. He three times tried and failed to scale Mt. Everest and journeyed from China to India, crossing the Gobi desert and the Mustagh Pass (alt. c.19,000 ft/5,791 m) of the Karakoram mountain range in modern day Pakistan. Convinced of Russian designs on British interests in India, Younghusband proactively engaged in the nineteenth century spying and conflict over Central Asia between the British and the Russians known as the Great Game. "Younghusband" is a Canadian who has spent a number of years bouncing back and forth between his home country and Japan. Fluent in Japanese and English with experience in numerous other languages from Spanish to Georgian, Younghusband has travelled throughout Asia. He graduated with an MA from the War Studies Department at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he focussed on the Japanese oil industry and energy security issues. He has recently returned to Canada from Japan, and is working in the technology sector.
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7 Responses to Making pirates hostes humani generis again

  1. kurt9 says:

    I see no reasons why letters of marque are a bad idea. At minimum, the U.S. should allow its shipping companies complete freedom, which would include the hiring of private military contractors and absolving from any liability there of, to handle the problems of piracy anyway they see fit. The main purpose of the letter of marque is to allow the ship operators the same freedom of action as any military with regards to the legal issues of the use of force. This is critical for dealing with the problems of piracy. Another approach to to simply offer and pay bounties for the capture of these pirates. The shippers and insurance companies should also be allowed to offer and pay such bounties as well.

  2. Younghusband says:

    @Kurt9: The problem with reviving letters of marque is part of the larger problem of a lack of international law for processing pirate suspects — and no oversight. It is the same problem the US ran into in Iraq with contractors that got overzealous. The US can’t just make a deal with its own shippers to absolve them of any wrongdoing on the sea. There are international frameworks in place (ie. UNCLOS), unfortunately those do not go far enough.

    However, if more pirates were like these idiots the problem may just solve itself.

  3. Peter Hodge says:

    “It is probably cheaper than sending the navy in, and arming up crews will only escalate the violence, right?”

    There’s already a substantial international naval and air presence in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa. Naval and air assets seem primarily committed to protecting vessels transiting the IRTC (Internationally Recognised Transit Corridor).

    Many ship owners are contracting private security companies to provide either armed or unarmed (“non-lethal”) security on ships and super yachts transiting the GOA. I don’t have a figure for the number of ships / shipowners doing this, but there’s enough of a market for a fair number of PSCs to be either operating in the region, claiming that they are, or trying to get in on the action.

    Key PSCs operating in the area include Drum-Cussac, Maritime and Underwater Security Consultants (these guys do onboard security, plus coordinate hostage negotiations and ransom drops), and Hart Group.

    Some companies, like Hart, Muse, and Geo/Shield, have, or claim to have, partnerships with the Yemen government (usually through a local intermediary) – in these arrangements, the companies say they can provide Yemeni navy / coastguard vessels to escort ships in Yemeni waters.

  4. Michael F says:

    Just curious – would the industrial fishing fleets that have looted the seas off Somalia, destroying the livelihood of the locals be treated as pirates as well? Would they be open to assault by Somali ships bearing letters of marque?

  5. kurt9 says:

    The problem with reviving letters of marque is part of the larger problem of a lack of international law for processing pirate suspects — and no oversight. It is the same problem the US ran into in Iraq with contractors that got overzealous.

    As we say in the computer world, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature! The reason why “overzealousness” is a problem in Iraq is because Iraqis live there and it is their land. We are an occupying force there and, as such, guests of the Iraqi people. So we have to behave properly. No one lives on the ocean. The shippers aren’t “occupying” anybody’s land. As far as I’m concerned, they can do what ever the f*ck they want. Anyone approaching within a 100 meters or so of a merchant ship will be eliminated. Just take the f*ckers out. Plain and simple. The problem is solved. I’m all for it.

    If the existing international framework does not allow for this solution to be implemented, replace them with one that does. Get a good set of lawyers to craft one up and put it in place.

  6. Younghusband says:

    @Peter: Thanks for popping in Peter. I forgot to mention your Somali piracy series. Everyone go read this! He interviews some “consultants” looking to get in on the action.

    About the naval force that is there: I agree with Boot that they aren’t being used to much effect. They are playing a zone defense strategy that isn’t solving any problems. Furthermore, how much does it cost to keep 1 battleship with 250 souls aboard on patrol in the Gulf of Aden for 1 month? Multiply that by about 50 ships (plus the USN 5th Fleet) and however many weeks since CTF-151 started in 2004? Astronomical. I mean, it is costing the US alone $250M per year! Compare that to the ransom payouts, increased insurance cost and loss of goods on that half of 1 percent hijacked. That is an analysis I want to see.

    @Michael F: That is a different kind of criminal. I don’t think giving Somali ships letters of marque is a good idea. Who knows the hands they’ll get into.

    @Kurt9: You said:

    If the existing international framework does not allow for this solution to be implemented, replace them with one that does. Get a good set of lawyers to craft one up and put it in place.

    Like I mentioned earlier, Law of the Sea is an extremely complex issue. That complexity has contributed to the lack of any solution to the piracy issue. This is where you get the “shoot first, ask questions later” frustration in dealing with these issues.

  7. Peter Hodge says:

    You’re right, YH, that stationing naval forces in the GOA is very expensive. Any cost benefit analysis has to weigh up the pros and cons of the current approach to sea lane security, with those of more “direct” solutions – e.g., what people often refer to as tackling the root causes of Somali piracy.

    I think the jury is still out on the effectiveness or otherwise of the international naval forces in the GoA and their current approach. We’re coming into “pirate season” now, so it’ll be interesting to monitor the level and nature of activity to gauge if the naval presence is effective in deterring pirates. My guess is that it will have an impact, but’s that’s just speculation at the moment.