Pirates off the coast of Somalia have had a field day this year, successfully capturing 39 vessels including a Saudi supertanker. Navies from around the world are steaming around the Gulf of Aden trying to provide some cover in a joint task force. But so far, the most that has happened is eight pirates picked up in Somali waters were dropped off in Kenya for trial.
Denmark, which is leading the joint task force this year, caught ten pirates in September but released them after six days of “sweating” in a “hot container.” Why were they released? Because the Danish authorities, both military and civilian, couldn’t figure out what to do with them. If they were made to stand trial in neighboring countries, they may have faced the death penalty. And if they were brought back to Denmark, they could “seek asylum.” So the Danes dropped them on a Somali beach near where they lived, restored to them their non-weapon personal effects, and bade them good luck. In a repeat incident earlier this month, the Danish “warship” caught two pirate boats, confiscated the weapons, and let the pirates go. One of the pirate ships sank due to weather, but the Danes refused to send crews to recover that boat so that the pirates might learn a lesson.
It’s not just the pacifist Europeans either. The United States naval commander recommended that merchant vessels learn defensive maneuvers and maybe consider carrying armed guards. For Admiral Gortney, the answer is “on the beach—Somalia—assuring security and stability and making sure the conditions that breed pirates are no longer there.” The Pentagon press secretary concurs that the situation “requires a holistic approach from the international community at sea, ashore, with governance, with economic development.” I guess the administration wants to formalize the ransoms that the Somali pirates are demanding by taking the money from the shipping companies (and all of us) and then paying protection money to Somalia in the form of foreign aid. Maybe if they got handouts, the “thinking” goes, they wouldn’t need to acquire machine guns and take to the seas.
A Wall Street Journal op-ed’s title said everything I was thinking on this subject: “Why Don’t We Hang Pirates Anymore?” It turns out that Articles 100 through 111 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are unsurprisingly milquetoast on this issue. It suggests in Article 100 that “all States shall cooperate to the fullest possible extent in the repression of piracy on the high seas or in any other place outside the jurisdiction of any State.” But then it says in Article 110 that a warship cannot even board a pirate ship except to verify its right to fly its flag. Once piracy is established, Article 105 allows for the courts to mete out punishment. But as the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said, “one of the challenges that we have—you have in piracy clearly is, if you are intervening and you capture pirates, is there a path to prosecute them?
While a functioning state in Somalia is the best prescription for ending piracy in its waters, that is beyond a proper foreign policy. These pirates are violating individual rights wholesale; we must stop them through force. The United States military must expands its rules of engagement to lethal and decisive levels even though no pirate has yet dared to attack an American merchant ship. Safety on the high seas is always in our interest and we must muster the fortitude our forefathers did during the Barbary wars.