Names and Definitions
It is always best to call things by their proper name.
A pirate is someone engaged in the act of piracy. That seems obvious. Nonetheless, not every report of piracy is legitimate. Some acts labeled as piracy are merely acts of territorial protection. Not every act committed recently off the coast of Somalia constitutes an act of piracy. As with any term, there are limitations to how broadly we may apply this to people. Not every person engaged in these particular actions is necessarily a “pirate.”
Technically, piracy is:
(a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
The definition is spatial. Piracy is explicitly defined as acts which occur on the high seas. Territorial waters are not classified as “the high seas.” Therefore, in discussing presumed acts of piracy, it is critical to know exactly where the act is alleged to have taken place. Most media reports tend to exclude this critical piece of information. Identifying locations undermines the larger effort to paint all practitioners with the same broad strokes.
Pirates and Americana
Americans used to harbor romantic notions about pirates. I grew up in an era where rebroadcasts of Errol Flynn movies were commonplace. That Flynn was gay was of no moment to the studios and Hollywood’s film tradition is richer for it. Pirates, then, have occupied a special place in the American psyche since the era of film.
The fascination has even crept into popular culture through the National Football League’s Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
America Loves Pirates
Pirate costumes are a staple of the American Halloween celebration.
Americans aren’t afraid of pirates because none of us can remember the Barbary Coast pirates. None of us remember those North African pirates seizing Europeans and Americans and selling them off in slave markets in Cairo and Constantinople. It was a long, long time ago. Pirates have had their image rehabilitated. The Marines, certainly, have had a lot to do with the restoration of this image. The Corps thrived in part based on their response to the predations of African pirates.
That the first incident involving an American did occur on the high seas has not permitted much context to the conversation. The MV Maersk Alabama was boarded roughly 240 nautical miles from Somalia. Still, the release of Captain Phillips and the murder of his captors will do little to stem the tide. The genie has been released — and its a mature 20-year old genie. Somalia and the West, because of the engagement by the US public, are at a crossroads. It is time for hard choices. There are many operable solutions that do not call for more bloodshed. The power, though, is not really in the hands of the Somalis. It is in the hands of the architects of their economic hardship. Using a shotgun to kill an elephant is an easy choice. It’s the wrong choice.
Nation States and a Colonial Legacy
You’ll notice that the definition of the United Nations makes reference to the actions of private actors. This distinction is critical to understanding the importance of the demise of Said Barre as head of state in Somalia. European firms engaged in criminal dumping and fishing largely began their engagements as the Barre regime fell away. As such, the conflicts in the Gulf of Aden have been percolating for more than 20 years.
It is part of the colonial legacy that the 5 nations in the Horn of Africa operate as largely separate entities. The indigenous peoples of these regions have not either not been sufficiently willing or able to cobble together a coherent, unified approach to many of their shared challenges. The British and the Italians played unique roles in the region — but both were sure to extract the most valuable resources for themselves. That’s what colonizers do. Similarly, they criminalized independence and development throughout the region for decades. Not so long ago, it was illegal for Eritreans to be educated beyond the 5th grade.
There is an inherent bias in criminalizing the actions of private citizens compelled to action in the absence of a recognized government body. The citizens of the United States of America (perhaps more than most other nations) should prize the valor and commitment of those Somali sailors working within their territorial waters and their Exclusive Economic Zones to protect the integrity of their primary source of food and wealth, such as it is.
The Economics of Piracy
The US media has made clear, consistent, and calculated efforts to ensure that its primary audience knows pirates have seized more than $100 million in ransom. Those same organizations, however, have made an equally clear effort to ensure its audience DOES NOT KNOW the economic impact of toxic waste dumped along the coastline OR the value of revenue lost due to illegal and destructive fishing (PDF link – see Page 2 for definition of destructive fishing) off the coast of Somalia. Some independent reports have estimated that as much as $300 million has been lost.
No matter the calculus, the Somalis are losing out. Moreover, the actions of persons operating outside of the Exclusive Economic Zone has been used to demonize each person working to mitigate the impacts of concerted action engaged in by Western firms.
Actions taken within the territorial waters do not constitute piracy, even though they may be considered illegal in an international court – depending on the circumstances. In addition, sovereign states retain the right to operate within their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). The Somalis are a sovereign people who are dealing with fundamental challenges that were a long time in the making. For now, the quantity and cleanliness of water trump the establishment of a government that will be whole-heartedly endorsed by the West (including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).
Clearing a Path Toward Solutions
As stated above, all solutions to problems of this nature do not require a military resolution. Given the complex nature of conditions on the ground in Somalia, it should be obvious to most of those concerned that the majority of Somalis would be adversely impacted by this approach for several reasons:
- A military solution will be aimed at the persons most able to expend productive economic labor: young men.
- Innocent persons will inevitably be killed in any type of military engagement. 55% of Somalis live along the coast. Young men engaged in fishing and other exercises within the EEZ do not live wholly apart from their families. Elders and children will be attacked as well.
- A one-sided engagement against private citizens in Somalia will further destabilize the region.
- If the US is serious about building a Security Command structure in Africa which does not impose its will on member states of the African Union, Western leaders will need to engage African leaders on a viable resolution.
- Western nations have not made a good faith effort to clean up waste dumped in Somali waters, nor have they made a good faith effort to compensate fishermen for lost waves or the impacts of destructive fishing. The economic impact of these actions has a considerable impact on the capacity of Somalia to stabilize operations.
Consider the following from a professor at the US Navy War College:
What insights can be gleaned from this situation? A cynical view suggests that the powerful still prefer military approaches to problems rather than measures requiring broader, multifaceted solutions. A more charitable assessment would suggest that, intent and rhetoric to the contrary, the capacity and will to tackle every problem comprehensively does not yet exist. Reality undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle. Three points stand-out.
First, it is now assumed axiomatic that un- or under-governed spaces have become breeding grounds for rogue groups threatening the international community and global economic system. However, this assumption is incomplete. Weakly governed and failed states are often themselves victimized by foreigners.
Second, the nature of warfare has changed is another accepted truth. War is no longer characterized primarily by conventional clashes between states, but fought “amongst the people” by combatants including not only states but hybrid networks of, criminal gangs, insurgents and international terrorists. In this situation military force alone is not sufficient to combat such threats; it should be employed to support political solutions and human security. This, however, requires non-military capabilities, resources, patience, and political and public will that are often lacking.
Third, despite the prevalence of rhetoric about preventing threats through human security states often resort to application of force—in pursuit of short-term, self-interests. Ultimately, the will and capacity to pursue comprehensive strategies that protect both the “winners” and “losers” of globalization appear insufficient. This begs the question of whether the global commons really can be secured for the common good. Yet such a question must be answered soon as global inequalities, economic recession, degradation of and competition over natural resources, climate change, and demographic pressures threaten not just the weak but all humanity.