Now that the crisis has passed with the Maersk Alabama and Captain Richard Phillips, along with three of the four pirates holding him, we need to determine how to avoid this in the future. Fred Iklé has a couple of common-sense suggestions in the Washington Post today, mostly by returning to traditional methods of exterminating piracy:
So why do we keep rewarding Somali pirates? How is this march of folly possible?
Start by blaming the timorous lawyers who advise the governments attempting to cope with the pirates such as those who had been engaged in a standoff with U.S. hostage negotiators in recent days. These lawyers misinterpret the Law of the Sea Treaty and the Geneva Conventions and fail to apply the powerful international laws that exist against piracy. The right of self-defense — a principle of international law — justifies killing pirates as they try to board a ship.
Nonetheless, entire crews are unarmed on the ships that sail through the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Shipowners pretend that they cannot trust their crews with weapons, but the facts don’t add up.
We’ve heard a number of excuses over the past couple of weeks for why crews have no access to weapons when traveling through the Gulf of Aden and other dangerous waters. Some ships have access to non-lethal weapons, such as sonic guns, designed to create tremendous pain so that pirates can’t get aboard the ship in the first place. Once boarded, however, crews are unarmed and at the mercy of the pirates, a completely unacceptable choice given the wide knowledge of the existence of piracy. If the crew members themselves aren’t qualified to carry weapons — and there’s no reason they can’t be qualified — the shipping companies should hire security forces for ships passing by the Horn of Africa.
Iklé has another good suggestion:
The international right of self-defense would also justify an inspection and quarantine regime off the coast of Somalia to seize and destroy all vessels that are found to be engaged in piracy.
This should actually be the next mission for the US Navy after freeing Phillips. We don’t need a quarantine and inspection to identify some of the boats and ports in question; I’d bet dollars to donuts we’ve already identified most of them. Our next step after killing the pirates on the lifeboat is torpedoing their ships in their home ports without inspections or even warnings. Somalia’s failed state can’t impose order on these areas, but if the pirates become a liability rather than an asset to these facilities, they’ll get the heave-ho soon enough.
In the future, we don’t need the lawyers and the FBI negotiators, and we especially don’t need to legitimize Somali “elders”, either. Iklé has that right; piracy is not a bank robbery. The entire point of piracy is to capture ships in territory where no nation can claim sovereignty and therefore work outside the civil law. The proper response to that is military, not some notion of cops and robbers. When pirates find out we’re serious, and when enough of them wind up at the bottom of the ocean, they’ll think twice about seizing American or Western shipping.
Update: JD Johannes had been gaming out this confrontation, and came remarkably close to the eventual conclusion days ago. Be sure to read his post.