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Ah, those Somali pirates. What to do about them? Why doesn’t the U.S. and/or NATO blow them out of the water? Because it’s just not that simple, that’s why.
Andrew Scutro had a piece in the Nov. 24, 2008 issue of Defense News that addressed the issue.
“The truth lies in the complexity of the situation. A naval captain is permitted to defend his or her ship if attacked, or can intervene if pirates are caught in the act, according to customary international law and practice.
“But with 16,000 ships transiting the Gulf of Aden every year and more than 70 attacks so far in 2008, naval forces are at a competitive disadvantage. The ocean is far too large, and warships are far too few – 18 at last count: European, Indian, Russian and America.”
U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, 5th Fleet commander in Bahrain, told USA Today, “We can’t be everywhere. They can be fishermen and 10 minutes later they’re on the vessel. Once they’re on board the vessel, we have a hostage situation.”
Lee Geanuleas, a former U.S. Navy cruiser captain with Middle East experience, adds: “It’s a very big ocean. I hate to state the obvious, but a single ship’s awareness of what’s going on over the ocean, even in this network-centric age, is limited. And these guys, if they know you’re around, they’re not going to do anything stupid.”
Another cruiser skipper, now retired, on the condition of anonymity told Andrew Scutro, “If we were able to thwart, impede or disrupt an act of piracy, we would. But we can’t arbitrarily attack a flagged vessel of another nation if it’s been hijacked or not.”
That’s because anti-piracy actions are “technically, law enforcement,” he said, adding that the legal ramifications of killing or capturing pirates are complicated. Trying to take back a ship would be inevitably bloody.
David Rivkin, a former Justice Department official and Washington lawyer who specializes in international law, commented, “This is like polio coming back. Piracy and slave trading had been eradicated, and now this thing is back with a vengeance.”
You also don’t have a suitable justice system, according to Rivkin. Warships can fire in self-defense and if a pirate is killed and the rules of engagement (RoE) were followed, “there should be no adverse consequences.”
A violation of the RoEs, however, can lead to the expected adjudication in the military justice system, as has occurred with several incidents in Iraq, Rivkin told Mr. Scutro.
“We have the authorities that we need; we have the rules of engagement that we need right now….One of the challenges that we have (in) piracy clearly is, if you are intervening and you capture pirates, is there a path to prosecute them? And that’s something I think the international community has got to answer for in the long run.”
“Piracy has never been entirely out of fashion, but a new generation of Somali bandits is setting troubling standards of audacity. The international community must respond with similarly unprecedented vigor….
“Piracy’s impact spreads far beyond the world’s dangerous chokepoints. Some shipping companies are hiring private security firms; others are sending their vessels thousands of miles out of the way to avoid danger areas. All add tremendous costs that drag on the world’s economy….
“(Pentagon) leaders have a point when they say that any lasting solution to piracy off eastern Africa must be more than maritime search; it must also address Somalia’s lawlessness.
“Step one: Send more ships to the region. Admirals all over the globe love to talk about protecting vital sea lanes; here is a perfect opportunity to use their ships and long-range patrol aircraft, manned and unmanned.
“Step two: Create clear rules for detaining pirates and putting them on trial.
“Step three: The international community must work with the International Maritime Organization to amend the laws that govern seagoing traffic in order to raise worldwide punishment standards for piracy, help commercial ships to defend themselves by licensing their crews to carry weapons or to hire security personnel, and give warships more flexibility when it comes to engaging pirates and pursuing them into the territorial waters that provide them safe haven….
“And step four: Improve information systems to track shipping and pirates…Shipping is a feast-or-famine business, and it’s looking at a deep downturn. Economic pressure – if not outright hijacking – will make it easier for smugglers and terrorists to get their hands on ships they could use for transport or as asymmetrical weapons.
“Improving security on the high seas must be a higher priority for the world’s governments.”
“Trying to restore order to Somalia in the hope that a stronger government could control piracy is a worthy effort which Washington should continue and redouble. Successful diplomacy and effective local reconstruction efforts could indeed reduce the real possibility of a local Islamist takeover and offer relief for the country’s unfortunate people. But Somalia’s descent into turmoil began almost two decades ago, and is as unlikely to be reversed soon by soft as by hard power. The jihadist threat – in the form of the Islamic Courts Union which controls most of the country – has already been unleashed on the region. What sense is there in failing to stop a serious incipient threat – sea piracy – out of concern at exacerbating a terrorist threat that already flourishes?
“The Russians have suggested attacking such pirate bases as Eyl in the northern Puntland region of Somalia. The idea deserves serious consideration. Naval patrols can reduce piracy, but they cannot stop it. So long as the risk of serious punishment is low and the ransoms that shipping companies pay are high, piracy will thrive and multiply. Failure in antipiracy efforts off the Somali coast is likely to encourage more piracy elsewhere and invite terrorists into the act. Adding international defeat at the hands of ingenious Somali pirates to the failure to find and kill Osama bin Laden increases the perception that states are powerless in the face of daunting challenges to international order.
“This failure will increase the jihadists’ contempt for us as it further weakens the currency of such accepted ideas as honoring treaties, respecting borders, and abiding by proscriptions against the use of force. The spread of chaos on the high seas threatens not only the commerce on which a globalizing world depends. It is an ominous step toward international chaos. A multilateral naval/amphibious operation that denies pirates the bases they need to operate would give powerful sinews to the idea that an international community can protect its endangered interests. If such agreement cannot be reached, the interest of the United States in untrammeled access to the world’s sea requires that we act alone.”