Piracy has long been the bane of merchant shippers. Almost from the first day people discovered they could move goods and people via the sea, other folks figured out that stealing those ships was a pretty easy way to make some money. In fact, suppression of piracy was a driving factor in the creation of many navies. Piracy was also one of the original driving forces in the evolution of what we now call “international law”. It took a while for different nations to recognize that the suppression of piracy anywhere of any nationality was good for every nation’s merchant marine, and that made shipping cheaper, and thus increased the wealth of nations.
For many years, most of us only thought of piracy in terms of black and white movies, but recently we’ve seen the epidemic of piracy off the coast of Somalia in the news. Mind you, this hasn’t been the only place it has been happening, it is just the most visible.
One of the problems with the piracy there was that the “civilized world” was attempting to use law and courts to address uncivilized behavior. Using the threat of law to sanction people who have chosen to live outside the boundaries of the law is and always will be foolish. Where do you think the term “outlaw” came from?
After several unproductive years of dithering in the Indian Ocean, navies and shipping companies are slowly changing their mindset towards countering piracy. Unsurprisingly, this shift has begun to produce a positive outcome. For 2011, the number of attempted Somali pirate attacks has continued to increase as in previous years; however, it appears that to date this year, the rate of successful attacks has actually begun a decline.
Go read the whole thing, but basically, shipping companies have finally started to realize that legal liabilities are not the worst thing in the world. And navies have started to figure out that steaming off the coast of Somalia (at huge expense) won’t do anything to deter piracy if the only thing the ships do is catch-and-release.
If you kill enough people engaged in piracy, pirate attacks tend to decrease. Why? Because piracy is supposed to be about easy money. Even in Somalia, there are easier ways to make a living than facing down people on big ships that are entirely willing to shoot back at you, and have big grey warships on call.
I think it was about 3 years ago that I first stated that we don’t have a piracy problem at all. What we really have is a Rules of Engagement problem. When piracy off Somalia first started to attract the attention of milbloggers about 4 years ago, people quickly proposed solutions, such as navy escorts and armed guards on board vulnerable merchant ships. These ideas were immediately dismissed as unworkable, dangerous, and too full of legal liabilities to ever work. Instead, we had to go through a couple years of stupid things like “passive defenses” and “safe rooms” on board ships. Incredibly, by making piracy a no-risk proposition for young Somalis, piracy increased. It’s almost like they were making some kind of risk/reward analysis and deciding it was worth attacking people that would do absolutely nothing to harm you.
We in the Western world often work to make sure all we do is constrained by the rule of law. And that’s generally a good thing. But people sometimes forget that the idea of law is to improve the situation, not hamper improvements. Much like in the killing of Osama binLaden, if shooting at pirates is contrary to international law, then it is the law that is wrong, not the shooting.
If you’d like to learn more about piracy, THE go to blog is EagleSpeak. He’s been on the topic, both from a tactical and legal view, for many years.