Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Ending Piracy: No easy answer merely a question of consequences

Piracy off Somalia is continuing to grab the headlines and this despite the presence of increasing numbers of warships from a variety of different nations - there seems to be no end to the problem. Piracy has been around off and on and one way and another for a very long time - since the time of Pompey and Caesar - it thrives in regions where there is no effective authority and when there are no real consequences for acts of piracy.

Historically once the near incessant wars of the late 18th and early 19th century's came to an end and the various powers stopped using 'pirates' empowered by 'letters of marque' the days of the pirate were effectively over. Even before this period the consequences for Piracy were made pretty severe i.e. death at execution dock (in London) or sooner if captured by the Royal Navy.

The background to this problem is the lack of any central authority (or any authority) that the West is prepared to deal with in what used to be Somalia. Failed Western intervention in the 1990's left Somalia a political vacuum and the Somali people at the mercy of a combination of tribal militias, warlords and Islamic fundamentalists, Ethiopian military intervention has failed to improve the situation.

When it comes to dealing with the Pirates, the situation is made more complicated by problems of jurisdiction, France when it captures pirates tries them in France, Germany transports Pirates to Kenya, etc.

This may be a case of here we go again, the United States first intervened overseas to deal with Piracy in the Mediterranean. When US Commodore Stephen Decatur attacked the Barbary pirates off North Africa in 1815, Decatur simply captured the flagship of the Algerian Bey and forced a capitulation and a promise of an end to Piracy. This action was backed up by a later British and Dutch bombardment of Algiers, when the Bey later tried to repudiate the agreement.

There is no easy bloodless uncomplicated answer to the problem of Somali piracy, even though the United Nations Security Council has authorised the use of the "necessary means" to stop pirates on the high seas and even hot pursuit into Somali territorial waters, the problem will not be really addressed until the Pirates are made fearful of the consequences of their actions. Additionally the long-term consequences of the failed state that passes itself of as Somalia will also need to be addressed.

If it is at all possible to learn any lessons from History, then one thing to remember is that the payment of ransom by ship owners, much like Danegeld will merely encourage more Piracy.

If it comes down to a case of 'boots on the ground' in Somalia, then the merchant sailors of the world may well have a long wait before they can sail without peril through the horn of Africa.

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