September 2014
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Somali Piracy, Action and Reaction

by Bruce A. Clark

I have just finished watching three documentaries about the pirates from Somalia (“Stolen Seas”, “Hunt for the Somali Pirates”, and “Somali Pirate Takedown: The Real Story”). In the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean or Arabian Sea, they seize ships, crews and passengers for ransom. This has been going on for years, although not forever. I found much of what I saw completely ridiculous, particularly the response of the countries whose corporations own the ships.

The view of the Somali pirates is two-fold. First, they regard it as a business. One youthful pirate interviewed stated that he was “set for life” (or words for that effect) and drove around the desperately poor people of his country in a new, white, four-door western sedan. However, it was also clear that they regarded themselves as some sort of Robin Hood, robbing the rich to better the poor. A pirate negotiator was also interviewed extensively. He was a person who had lived in the US for many years, and was completely fluent in American English. It was also his view that the ransoms paid bought a lot of food and that the general population views the pirates as heroes. (That the population benefits and approves makes them accessories, in my view.)

The filmmakers, in some background footage, noted that the region had been contested in the Cold War, with both sides sending in arms, and that there was much bloodshed. Part of the result was that the country had become divided into warlord fiefdoms, with no real, functioning central government. The regions in the north functioned a little more harmoniously and sponsored more of the piracy. Further, when the US had sent in troops twenty-some years ago, to try to help provide a better government, there had been fighting and some US personal dead, along with maybe 1000 Somalis dead.

The documentary “Stolen Seas” is the broadest and most detailed documentary of the whole situation, covering the views and fallacies of all parties. (It encompasses far too much to cover in this short article.) In it, someone made the point that the Somalis didn’t want money, but teachers and such, and that piracy was a way to force foreigners to help them out. What none of the Somalis mentioned, of course, was that so often when foreigners did come into such countries to help, with food or some other aid, one or another group would kidnap them for ransom or kill them, or both.

What Next?

So, the Somalis keep capturing ships. The shipping countries respond by sending warships into the area and, in some cases, the shipping companies put armed guards onto the ships to try to drive off attacking pirates. Both solutions have complications. In the first case, the area in which the piracy happens is large, and the warships or aircraft cannot always get there in time to prevent a ship from being captured. In the second case, various other ports of call might object to the presence of arms and guards on civilian cargo ships (i.e., it might contravene local laws). The guards might be arrested or arms impounded until diplomacy sorts things out.

The truly, amazingly stupid next step after a warship does succeed in capturing a boatload of pirates is that the capturers hold the pirates for trial, in the name of justice. (This doesn’t always happen; sometimes pirates are killed, but more often are just released to do it again and again.) I never heard anyone who was calling for justice for the pirates mention justice for their victims and their right not to be injured, killed or kidnapped.

This is a very complex business, because of the vagaries of the law in different countries. The documentary made it clear that having to deal with a trial was, for the shipping companies, an expensive proposition. Not only did they have to put up with the disruption of their shipping and the cost of the defense of their ships, but then have court and witness costs, bringing them in from all parts of the world. Some countries have contracted with next-door Kenya to conduct the trials and imprison pirates, but that, too, has costs. Moreover, according to the laws in some places, the pirates have the right to claim asylum, and the trying countries might have to keep the Somali pirates, whom they certainly do not want.

This Is Nuts!

I consider myself a peaceful, kind and thoughtful person. I’ve spent my adult life trying to make a better world in whatever limited ways I could. That has meant organizing and demonstrating against war, voting, being active in my union as a steward or employee trying to help the members with their problems, and other similar activities. Since my property has an unused rental unit on it, a few years ago I took in a homeless, alcoholic vet, giving him a place to live, trying to help him get off the sauce and straighten out some medical problems. I certainly do not wish to do ill to anyone. However, I consider the lengths gone to to avoid giving the pirates what is coming to them totally insane. This is piracy on the high seas, folks! For hundreds of years, the policy for dealing with that has been shoot or hang them, sink their ships and sail away, leaving a little food for the sharks. Those guys come upon an unarmed cargo ship shooting, not caring whom they hurt or kill, and then they take everything for the purpose of making a profit.

Those pirates are a mafia, operating outside of their country. They are not groups who ought to generate any sympathy, not for themselves, not for any people they supposedly help with their earnings and who praise the pirates as heroes. There are those speaking sympathetically in the documentary who say “The Somalis sit on shore without jobs and see a third of the wealth of the world sailing by on cargo ships. It’s not surprising that some think of breaking off a piece.” Such rot! I’m handicapped and live on a small Social Security pension. Am I thus permitted to “break off a small piece” of someone else’s money and injure or kill or take hostages while robbing a bank or liquor store? No, and neither are the Somalis. If people want help, they need to ask for it, and not abuse the people who try to answer the call. Trying to coerce money or assistance out of others is morally and legally criminal, and deserves only the harshest response. (Please note that any solutions I propose are very narrow and directed only to this situation. I surely don’t mean that they be general solutions to other criminal or political situations elsewhere in the world. Those need to be thought out individually.)

Fixing It

When I try to come up with possible solutions to this situation, I think of that film starring Liam Neeson in which his daughter is kidnapped by human traffickers and sold into slavery, and what he does to get his daughter back: charge on, give no quarter. The analogy is, to my mind, perfect. Step one is for warships or any aircraft or boats coming from them to take on pirates vigorously, in the traditional manner, leaving only scrap wood and an oil slick. If the pirates are pretending to be fisherman, they should be stopped and searched and if weapons are found, return to step one.

Individual cargo ships ought to carry a few heavily armed defenders with weapons that can destroy any attackers and their vessels. Along with that, there need to be international conventions that will prevent countries where the ships call from interfering with the guardians.

Lastly, and probably most controversially, there needs to be very firm action to try to retrieve hostages and vessels. I would suggest, harsh as it is, giving the country in general a short period to release all, letting them know that the alternative is total destruction, and make sure it’s not an empty threat. I know that lots of people will whine and cry that such a thing is inhumane or a crime against humanity. No! Piracy, killing and hostage taking is inhumane and a most serious crime. No matter what their personal circumstances, the ships and people they are hijacking did not cause the Somalis’ problems, and the pirates have no legal nor moral justification to do what they do.

Any consideration for the pirates ought not to be done out of sympathy but solely for tactical reasons, to help the pirates’ victims. Any response, no matter how harsh, is a defense against their inhumanity, and an action to permanently put a stop to it. Moreover, it can set up an example to others who are doing similarly in other parts of the world. In the last resort, instead of having the piracy, the world would be much better off having a large, nature reserve in Northeast Africa.