Sunday, October 26, 2008

NATO vs. Somali Pirates

Time magazine this week is asking "Will NATO Navies Stop Somali Pirates?"

My answer? Probably not.

Not if they go at piracy like it's a law enforcement problem, which is the approach the article implies NATO is taking. It talks about a successful action by the French navy that stopped an attempted hijacking and caught nine pirates. The nine were then turned over to the government of the Puntland region of Somalia, which promised to put them on trial.

Of course if you read this piece by the BBC a few weeks ago, you'd know that's a pretty unlikely proposition. The story talked about the Puntland city of Eyl, whose economy is based on providing support and services to the pirates (not only things you’d expect like ships and fuel, but also hostage negotiators and restaurants that feed ship’s crews that have been captured - honestly you have to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of the folks in Eyl). Piracy provides most of the income for the entire Puntland region, so I wouldn't expect them to kill the golden goose.

But past that, historically pirates have been viewed as a military problem rather than a criminal one. It's been largely forgotten now, but the United States first foray into foreign affairs was to fight pirates along the Barbary Coast of North Africa, the line in the Battle Hymn of the Marines "the shores of Tripoli" is a reference to their role in fighting the Barbary Pirates at the start of the 19th century. Treating the Somali pirates of today as a criminal problem seems doomed to fail. A military mission would be simple - find the pirates' ships and sink them. If you treat it as a criminal problem, you have to arrest them, but what are the rules if they fight back?

And then there's the problem of what to do with the pirates if and when you do catch them. Turning them over to the legal system of a country that basically does not have a functioning government doesn't make much sense. France sent another group of pirates back to Paris for trial because that group had attacked a ship with French citizens, so then is every country responsible for prosecuting pirates that attack their citizens? Then what about a ship with a multinational crew?

You get the point; it becomes a wildly complex problem being handled by a group (NATO) that already is an enormous bureaucracy. And keep in mind that the Somali pirates have had a lot of practice in playing cat and mouse with ships on a huge swath of ocean. All in all I'd say NATO's chances for success in this mission aren't great.
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