Thursday, February 24, 2011

Piracy issues

From the comfort of my armchair, I've never been one to run from (the discussion of) imminent danger. I've been an advocate of the employment of aggressive policies in response to the issue of piracy, ever since the number of attacks reached the threshold sufficient to warrant international attention.
Here in the US, far from the action but still the terminal end of so much maritime commerce, we've had cause to gloat- like a well-played round of the game 'Mortal Kombat,' our one skirmish with modern piracy ended with the tinny computer voice cheering 'flawless victory,' and the blood and brains of some nameless pirates to be scraped off some American shoes.
I doubt that this week's tragedy will be a game-changer, but all the same, I have been particularly troubled by the death of our four sailboaters who didn't survive the rescue attempt aboard their boat.
Having taken a little time to look around, I've seen a lot of sound bites and questionable information being passed regarding these events. There's word of friendly fire being again responsible for their death (something that is accepted but not talked about so much). The US navy says that they attacked based on small-arms fire having been directed at their shadowing vessel... others say the US Navy attacked at the sound of gunfire aboard the sailboat. It's doubtful we'll know exactly how it all happened, and maybe it's not germane, as the one thing that absolutely is not happening is anyone claiming that mistakes were made, and this, to me, is the most troubling issue.

Again, from the comfort of my chair, I've been echoing the voices around me who say "Kill 'em all and let God sort them out' and 'Give no quarter, for none will be given.' I've even heard an otherwise reasonable voice say "as far as I'm concerned, the hostages are already dead once they're taken.'

Again, I'm troubled, but not surprised. These are mariners, the hostages, and most shamefully, almost none of them are American, though many of them do, ultimately, work for American interests one way or the other. The knowledge base of the American public on the issue is simply the knowledge that our one exposure to this issue ended in perfect action-movie fashion. There were snipers and navy SEAL's involved. No one ever talked much about the savage and increasingly more savage beatings and torture of sailors that seems to be becoming a negotiation tool, so, thus, the American public is largely unaware or uninterested in what some largely foreign, largely non-American people are experiencing an ocean away.

What is obvious to me, and has been for some time, is that we're headed down the wrong path in our increasingly violent localized responses to pirate attacks. I've surprised myself, as a hawkishly-minded individual, in coming to this conclusion, but above all, I'm a pragmatist-I see rules of engagement in dealing with piracy that vary widely from those employed in other situations. And seriously, I do not like what I see.
First off, anti-piracy measures as they exist today are mostly about security theatre: providing a visual impression of security without actually providing security. This is blatantly obvious in the massive failure of international naval patrols to reduce the number of attempted attacks. There is no method of prosecuting pirates- no laws exist in most places to actually handle such things, and no one is actually suggesting that laws be enacted under the half-dozen maritime treaties that contain sufficient mandate to be used as a starting point in forming a legal framework to prosecute pirates. This leaves just three responses to piracy; find loopholes to prosecute pirates somehow, some way, do not prosecute, and, finally, summary judgment and execution.
Of these three, the last option troubles me. The Russian navy has made a badly- kept secret policy of ensuring that pirates don't survive any attempt to surrender. In business terms, this dis-incentivizes pirates from surrendering peacefully. Superficially, I'm sure the idea was meant to provide incentive to leave Russian interests alone, but the rule of unintended consequences has to be considered here, for it's certainly being observed in action- negotiations have evolved such that the blood of sailors is being spilled in the normal course of action.

I'm ashamed to say that I've kept my opinion to myself on this issue for the most part- I'm not the first sailor to say that it's time to Knock This Shit Off. Some things I've been considering:

1). There's a systemic distaste for creating the necessary laws and authority to combat piracy- issues of sovereignty and other concerns are absolutely involved, as is the cost of action vs. the cost of inaction. Anti piracy-related business is profitable by greater than an order of magnitude when compared to the actual cost of piracy.

2). Ransom. There is no law that touches on this subject, and there is a massive variance in the types of people involved- ergo, it is unlikely that there will ever be anything approaching a quorum of sufficient rigor to control the payment (or not) of ransoms. Personally, I believe that they should never be paid. When piracy was limited to stealing the food and the contents of the captain's safe, this was the case.

3). Downstream effects. Philosophical discussions of morality aside, escalation of violence has had no positive results whatsoever- there are more pirate attacks, and more sailors are being injured, tortured and killed in response. Hostages are not surviving as frequently as they did even last year.

4) Containment. Piracy is spreading, as is the reach of pirates. Little or no effort is seemingly being made to combat piracy uprange. Rather, response is where anti-piracy measures are being made, rather than in prevention. This is both counterintuitive and counterproductive. You don't protect kids from a vicious dog by sending them to school in a padded suit. You chain the dog. We don't need to invade Somalia to do this. We need to prosecute the pirates' international partners and employees. It's an open secret that Somali pirates have to have contacts in Europe to get shipping schedules and routing plans, yet there is no mention of hunting down these networks. All we get is a show of force that rarely works out well for those being victimized.


Ken E Beck said...

Hey Paul, Nice post. Broken eggs, no omelet.

Anonymous said...

One thing your post doesn't quite touch upon is the root cause of piracy. Like most crime, that is,the political and social conditions in Somalia that lead individuals into this line of work. Without effective political and social structures in Somalia (whether brought about through domestic change or outside imposition), efforts to control piracy is simply going after the fox as he's leaving the henhouse.

Oh, as to pointing out screwups, there have been some reports questioning the FBI's role in negotiating the hostages release by seizing two pirates who boarded the navy vessel to conduct the negotiations.

Ebb Tide said...

Oh Jeez, Let me get the hankie out and wipe away the tears for the political and social injustices of Somalia. Somalia,the huge sewer hole, so bad that even prospective tyrant dictators shopping for a population to subjugate don't stay. Maybe Kadafy will give it a shot as he seeks a new home.
Maybe Al Gore can visit with some aloe lotion.

The USA has enough problems without being the nanny and sugar daddy for every slum in the world. If they pirate our ships, hang-em.
This simple solution has worked well for centuries, why are politically correct folks trying to re-invent the wheel?

You don't need an interpreter to explain a dead pirate on a rope. Cold but effective.

If the pirates do have co-conspirators in the shipping field they will certainly steer them away from our ships.

And the dumb asses on yachts should stay the hell out of the bad neighborhood until someone grows some balls and takes out the trash.

Paul, Dammit! said...

No one is talking about the political and social situation in Somalia, Ebb Tide. Most people realize that there is neither the will nor the incentive to fix the problem at its' source.

And let's have a reality check. No one is going to accept a tacit policy of killing suspected pirates without benefit of a trial, so let's dispense with the hyperbole. I've proposed no solutions here, only, I hope, a more realistic take on the issues that aren't being addressed.

Ebb Tide said...

Sorry Paul, my comments were directed to the hand wringing Anonymous poster and not your blog.

He worries about political and social conditions and Monday morning quarterbacks the FBI's role.

Even in the Caribbean pirate days they gave the bums a trial.

Nothing will change until the risk of pirating vessels out weighs the reward. Go after the enablers and the pirates.

Give 'em a fair trial and if they're guilty, let the ropes stretch necks. It's worked well in the past.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Ebb, but you're wrong. It doesn't work well. People who have nothing to lose are not deterred by the possibility of execution. Under your logic, we should have been seeing a decrease in piracy after the Maersk Alabama. Until you address the root of the problem, it is still worth the risks for individuals to engage in this behavior.

As for the FBI, get to know people in law enforcement who've worked with the FBI, it will change your J. Edgar Hoover image of them.

Anonymous said...

Being on a ship that has been subjected to at least 3 unsuccessful attacks, I believe the answer can be summed up in one word - weapons. No ship that has returned fire to the pirates has been boarded. It can be argued that this may lead to an escalation of force, but there is only so much that a guy in a skiff can dole out.