Sunday, November 7, 2010

Modern piracy on the free seas

Reuters reports that Somali pirates killed a hostage who had refused to disembark from a yacht they had hijacked. The relative impunity with which piracy continues to thrive in Somalia is quite striking. The New York Review of Books had a good article by Jeffrey Gettleman a few weeks ago reviewing two recent books about Somalia and piracy: "The Pirates Are Winning!"

Gettleman recounted a visit to Somalia last Spring in which it became clear that a local pirate leader had no need to hide his occupation — in fact, he was a celebrity. As Gettleman noted, "There's no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays — it's about the only industry that does." It is even possible to invest in piracy ventures, just as in Europe several centuries ago, where successful pirates were often underwritten by early 'venture capitalists' who preferred to stay on land.

Gettleman also points out that this form of marine lawlessness may be particularly visible, but that for years before the pirates took to their coastal seas, foreign trawlers had been using "dirty fishing tactics, like dynamiting reefs or employing giant, waterborne vacuums... decimating not just that year's catch but future generations as well." At times these ships used to shoot at local fishermen. Today, some ships dump toxic waste in the local seas, safe in the knowledge that no Somali government will track them down and punish them.

All of this points to the difficulty of establishing the rule of law on the open seas, an issue that also goes back centuries. Grotius famously wrote De Mare Liberum, while on the payroll of the Dutch East India Company, to argue that no authority could deny anyone the right to freely use the seas. The current interpretation of "mare liberum" is that any nation can assert jurisdiction over issues of piracy, under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

So far, no national government appears to be sufficiently concerned to do much about Somali piracy (or about other widespread forms of law-breaking such as illegal fishing techniques or dumping waste). One clue as to the reason why is that Gettleman estimates that pirates have taken in "at least $100 million" in the past few years. That is less than some annual incomes on Wall Street!

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