Are we too soft?


“When you use the military, people get hurt, that’s a fact.” That’s the word from the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) spokesman Wing Commander Paddy O’Kennedy on the use of force against East African pirates. That the comment comes in a BBC report titled “The losing battle against Somali piracy” speaks volumes. Imagine the uproar if the police said the same about crime.

But, as far as I can determine, there has been no uproar – and very little comment. Only Steven Givler, an American painter living in Portugal, has stated the obvious, namely that regardless of their mission, seems EUNAVFOR believes “that it’s better to do nothing than take the chance that someone might get hurt.” Commenting on O’Kennedy’s statement, he replied: “Yes. That’s the whole point. Hurt the pirates badly enough, and piracy becomes, once again, the sole domain of Johnny Depp.”

O’Kennedy was referring to captain of the Samho Jewellry, a hijacked South Korean merchant vessel that was recently freed by South Korean commandos. During the rescue, in which eight pirates were killed and five captured, the captain was shot in the stomach. “This is, of course, lamentable, even in view of the lopsided score at game’s end, but to say simply that – using the military endangers hostages’ lives – is to give a skewed view of the board,” Givler says. “First of all, it’s not as if doing nothing ensures hostages’ safety; two hostages were executed recently for the capital crime of failing to be Muslim, and others have died of malnutrition during their long captivity. (Hostages are generally held from six to nine months, during which they sometimes perform the dual role of ballast and human shields, rotting in the holds of their own vessels, which the pirates use as mother ships.)

The International Maritime Bureau notes eight sailors died and 13 were wounded in Somali pirate incidents in 2010, up from four dead and 10 wounded in 2009.
“But saying all this is to set up a false dilemma,” Givler says. The truth of the matter is that we could effectively stop piracy in a fortnight if anyone had the guts, and it wouldn’t have to endanger any hostages”, Givler continues, arguing for a clean-up of pirate shore basis. “Of course, there are endless lines of lawyers waiting to tell us that firing on the Somali coast is an act of war. I have no problem with that. As a matter of fact, that would just be putting a legitimate title on what they’ve been doing to us all along. Besides, attacking the pirate bases is exactly what Thomas Jefferson did over two hundred years ago [in dealing with the North African or “Barbary” pirates], and I think it’s no coincidence that they haven’t been much of a problem until recent times.”

To my mind, Givler makes several good points. Speaking in another context, US author and retired Army lieutenant colonel Ralph Peters said the “most troubling aspect of international security … is not the killing power of our immediate enemies, which remains modest in historical terms, but our increasingly effete view of warfare.” Writing in the Spring 2009 edition of The Journal of International Security Affairs, he added: “As our enemies’ view of what is permissible in war expands apocalyptically, our self-limiting definitions of allowable targets and acceptable casualties—hostile, civilian and our own—continue to narrow fatefully.”

Lamenting Wishful Thinking and Indecisive Wars, he continued: “Our enemies cannot defeat us in direct confrontations, but we appear determined to defeat ourselves.” This is certainly true of piracy as well.

Media reports say the pirates are becoming more violent, using captured sailors as human shields. The New Zealand Herald reported on February 4 captured sailors face being thrown overboard, locked in freezers or having plastic ties put on their genitals. On January 26 an element of the international anti-piracy contingent unsuccessfully tried to free the crew of the captured Beluga Nomination and killed a pirate in the process. In retaliation the pirates murdered a Filipino sailor. (British) Royal Marines Major General “Buster” Howes, the current EUNAVFOR commander, added that if “warships approached a pirated ship too closely, the pirates would drag hostages on deck and beat them until the warship went away.” To my mind the humanitarian response to this is not for the warship to sail away, but for a sniper to put a round through the brain of the abuser, and the next thug and the next. This implies some risk to sailors, but Norwegian shipping magnate Jacob Stolt-Nielsen last week said eliminating the pirates is worth the risk of retaliation. “It is conceivable the pirates would take revenge on the crews they are already holding hostage, one must realise this. However, this is war, and wars cost lives,” he says.
“The only language these pirates understand is force,” Stolt-Nielsen told the Norwegian newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN). “Sinking their ship will all hands aboard is the way to solve the problem.” He expressed his frustration at what he says is the international community’s half-hearted approach to piracy, saying “The only way to put this business in decline is to hang them.”

Historically, that is precisely the treatment a pirate could expect. Indeed, until recently the intent “to see to it that any man who sails under a pirate flag or wears a pirate brand gets what he deserves: a short drop and sudden stop” – a hanging in other words – was not just Hollywood dialogue (in this case Lieutenant James Norrington in Pirates of the Caribbean). The more notorious captains were tried in formal court if caught but the majority suffered summary justice and was quite literally “hanged from the nearest yardarm.” Captain William Kidd was hanged in 1701 after a controversial trial and “Calico Jack” Rackham in 1720. Of interest is that Kidd haunted the same waters now frequented by Somali pirates. After execution, Kidd and Rackham’s remains were placed in iron cages that were hanged from gibbets to deter future buccaneers. Kidd’s remained on display along the River Thames outside London for 20 years.

But instead of bringing justice to these robbers and murderers, the international community plays “pass the parcel” and chase red herrings. The first of these is the contention that the solution to sea piracy lies on land. The argument goes that piracy is a symptom of the lawlessness on land that followed the collapse of central government in 1991. Others add to this the collapse of Somali fishing stock because of foreign poaching and the illegal dumping of chemicals and radioactive materials off its shores (some of this washed up in the 2004 tsunami). But this is rather condescending, akin to linking crime to poverty. In South Africa we have rejected this. The country has thousands of criminals from a poor background, yes; but millions more live in poverty this minute but do not murder, rob or steal. Then there are the do-badniks from the privileged classes. Clearly, poverty or privation did not steer them into crime. The problem with Somali pirates then, is on sea, not on land.

The next fishy tale involves the alleged quest for justice for pirates. The law is clear – probably too clear. Every country can try pirates in their courts and punish them. Most countries, especially the ex-British colonies, will find the crime is still current in their common criminal law. Givler noted the legions of lawyers. Well, they can make anything white or black a nasty shade of grey. This explains how the Danish Absalon-class command and support ship, the HDMS Esbern Snare, could stop a suspicious vessel on February 12 with two skiffs on deck in addition to pirate paraphernalia including boarding ladders, automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades and two kidnap victims (aka “hostages”) and still release them because there was not enough evidence for a conviction in a Danish court. Perhaps we have lower standards, but if that was a vehicle stopped at a roadblock here in South Africa, the police would have heralded it a major victory against crime and would have made sure to tell the public they will be checking the fingerprints of the villians and the ballistics of their firearms to link them to other crime scenes.

It appears, however, that the Danes and other Europeans are wary of taking pirates home for trial, as they should, lest they be forced to provide the miscreants asylum afterwards. Yes, it seems the European legal system has been so perverted that crime actually pays. Hence the propaganda that they be tried in Somalia, Kenya, the Seychelles or anywhere else! But these countries do not want them either…

The sad truth seems to be that the fight against piracy is largely a public relations exercise and until the limp wrist and talk makes way for a firm hand and action, the global community will enjoy as much piracy as its willing to stomach. The prognosis is more hand-wringing while ships are taken, ransoms are extorted and sailors are tortured and murdered. It used to be joked of the British Foreign Office that it was not there to do anything, but to explain why nothing could be done. This now seems to apply to some navies too. Now you know why nothing will likely happen – to the pirates at least – the next time a sailor is tortured or murdered on deck to keep a warship at bay.