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In the wake of yesterday's tragic news that four Americans had been executed after being kidnapped by Somali pirates off the coast of Oman, many are asking: Is there any way to end the hijackings in the seas east of Africa? History suggests swift and harsh punishment for the pirates, but in modern times, the solution isn't so simple.
Image via Flickr
The buccaneers were often sanctioned by the governments of Britain, France, and the Netherlands as a way to fight a proxy war against Spain, which was sending gold plundered from the Americas back to Europe by the boatload. Unlike the witty, playful and handsome characters portrayed by Disney, these were not the most savory folk. "Spanish subjects could be expected to be tortured, murdered, and extorted at random by foreign raiders from the sea," writes Stephen Doster, in his paper "A Brief History of Piracy in the Caribbean: 1500-1730."
The Spanish--and eventually the British and other colonial governments--beat back the pirates by providing armed escorts for ships, and by doling out harsh, swift justice: death by hanging for any pirate unfortunate enough to be captured alive.
Roughly 280 years later, the United States is not going to start erecting gallows so they can string up a few swashbuckling Somalis. The world, thankfully, is a more civilized place. Just last week, one of the pirates who had kidnapped Captain Richard Phillips was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison. But are lengthy prison sentences in America an effective deterrent for the Somalis?
Obviously not, as evidenced by the events of this past weekend. The Economist, in a story headlined "No stopping them," writes:
Image via The Economist Somali pirates: not just limited to Somali waters anymore.
According to the International Maritime Bureau, which posts live data on raids, Somali pirates hold 33 vessels and 758 hostages. In January alone the bureau recorded 35 attacks. The raiders took seven ships and 148 new hostages. The United Nations estimates the annual cost of piracy in the Indian Ocean at between $5 billion and $7 billion. Later this month, as the monsoon ends and the seas calm, attacks will multiply and the numbers of ships and hostages held will rise
Just 30 warships are on pirate patrol in the vast, bustling waters of the Gulf of Aden, a passage for 20 percent of the world's ships. And, as this past weekend's incident painfully illustrated, the pirates are expanding their range, using "mother ships" to stage attacks far away from Somalia off the coast of Oman.
An estimated 1,600 sailors have been kidnapped since 2008, and all but 30 of them have returned alive. Pirate ransoms have increased exponentially in recent years, making the marauders better-funded, better-equipped, and, most frighteningly, more enterprising. The issue is further compounded by the fact that, unless a U.S. citizen is involved, few pirates are ever prosecuted. And the pirates, The Economist explains, know the chances of being punished are slim.
If they are caught in the middle of an attack, the pirates have no hesitation throwing their weapons--typically AK-47 machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers--and their scaling ladders overboard to destroy evidence of their intentions. Even when a ship succeeds in capturing pirates, both sides know that the legal complexity of bringing prosecutions means the prisoners will probably be quickly released. Naval forces have let between 500 and 700 pirates go over the last three years, mostly ensuring they have enough fuel and other supplies to get home and, on more than one occasion, helping with engine repairs. Some pirates have been arrested several times.
Most ships now resort to speeding through the dangerous waters (apparently, no ship has been successfully boarded when sailing at more than 18 knots), equipping ships with concertina wire to make boarding more difficult, and building "safe rooms" where the crew can hole up and simply wait out the pirates.
Of course, that's hardly a long-term solution to the problem.
To make any real difference, Somalia needs a stable, functioning government that is willing to crack down on the pirates. And even if the chaotic East African nation were to somehow get its act together, the new government might be loath to act on the problem. As Somalia-born rapper K'Naan explains, the modern pirates started as an impromptu maritime militia to guard against illegal dumping of toxic waste in the fishing waters off the coast. Now they're something like folk heroes.
So where's that leave us? As the organizers of the Blue Water Rally yacht race pointed out yesterday, it's almost impossible to avoid the waters of the coast of Somalia--the only other option is sailing all the way around the horn of Africa--so recreational boaters should travel in flotillas. That was reportedly the plan for Scott and Jean Adam and their friends, Seattle natives Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggle. But for some reason--and we may never know why--they elected to go it alone.