Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Set a pirate to catch one

The pirate problem
The world is unsure how to deal with rampant Somalian piracy. The US should take the first step and ratify the Law of the Sea

o Ian Williams
o, Tuesday December 9 2008 14.00 GMT

It is a pleasant surprise that few voices have tried to justify Somali piracy as an anti-imperialist gesture – although I'm sure someone out there is working on just such an apologia. However, hijacking food aid cargoes and taking unarmed merchant ships is a bit of a stretch for even the most determined third worldist.

You can never be sure whether the alleged connection to Islamists isn't just the usual obsessive attempt to link every sparrow's assassination to the followers of the prophet, but if true, it precludes much in the way of yo-ho-ho-ing and rum toping and wenching in the taverns ashore. On the other hand, as a longtime member of the Somali Seaman's Social Club back in the port of Liverpool, I remember long after-hours drinking sessions that indicate a powerful and persistent thirst in the Somali maritime community.

But romanticism and Jack Sparrow aside, there was historically and is now little to recommend those who kill and loot at sea. Perhaps their one positive achievement was to provoke the concept of universal jurisdiction. Even without a UN Security Council resolution, anyone apprehending a pirate could hang them from the yard-arm. That has now been supplanted by Articles 100 to 107 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which specifically deal with piracy and its repression on the high seas.

However, the US has yet to ratify the Convention, and the current administration, peg legged though it may be, frowns upon the concept of universal jurisdiction, which, heaven forefend, could apply to American officials kidnapping and torturing citizens of other states.

The act only applies to piracy on the high seas, and not in the exclusive economic zone even of virtual states like Somalia, but that contingency is covered by Security Council resolutions 1816 and 1838 which allow states cooperating with the transitional federal government in Somalia to enter territorial waters to stop piracy.

In the meantime every state with a war ship to wave seems to want to get in on the action and send a force to the Red Sea entrance to show that they are doing something. Navies are probably bored nowadays since modern technology has reduced them to offshore logistics and missile batteries, so going after pirates must be appealing to the Hornblower struggling to surface in every naval officer. However, they do not seem to be speaking to each other very effectively. The unfortunate incident in which the Indian ship blasted a hijacked trawler out of the water may have been a salutary lesson to the pirates, but it was one that the crew held hostage on it may not have needed.

But maybe older practices need to be reconsidered. Why not employ a convoy system under naval escorts through the straits? It may be slower, but not nearly as time consuming as going round the Cape or taking a diversion into a Somali pirate haven.

And while hanging from the yard-arm and walking the plank may be a little too atavistic, maybe the time has come to issue letters of marque to privateers. It is an old Anglo-American tradition to employ pirates to catch pirates and all those Blackwater-types from Iraq, soon to be unemployed when they lose their impunity for killing Iraqis, may welcome the opportunity to claim prize money for retrieving ships and capturing pirates.

However, while on the subject of impunity, some more serious coordination of the joint naval force is obviously called for. It would help legitimacy and acceptability if Washington were to ratify the Law of the Sea quickly so that it accepts the actual convention that the combined fleet is supposed to be implementing. The Navy wanted to sign the treaty; it's the loony-tune ideologues from the GOP who continue to hold it up. Piracy proves them wrong-headed on this as on so many other stands they have taken during the past eight years.

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