UN Council suggests special Somali piracy courts


The UN Security Council is suggesting special piracy courts to plug a gap in the world response to the costly attacks on merchant ships off the lawless Somali coast.

A Russian-drafted resolution passed unanimously by the 15-nation council asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report back within three months on ways of prosecuting pirates, some of whom currently go free even if they are captured. The resolution, a rare Russian initiative on the council, expressed concern over such cases, calling them a failure that “undermines anti-piracy efforts of the international community.”

The hijacking of ships near the coast of Somalia, where an Islamist insurgency and general lawlessness have created a safe haven for pirates, has cost the shipping industry tens of millions of dollars in ransoms for vessels and their crews. As of last week, around 20 ships including everything from small fishing vessels to large tankers were being held.

Prosecution of captured pirates has been hampered by disagreements over which country should try them. Somalia itself lacks the legal infrastructure to support trials. Options suggested by last night’s resolution included creating special domestic chambers, possibly with international components, a regional tribunal or an international court.

The United Nations has broad experience with creating international courts to deal with war crimes, but has not so far tackled piracy. Some UN diplomats have said privately, however, that such special tribunals are complicated, expensive and might not be worth the trouble. It could be better, they said, to assist countries prepared to prosecute pirates in national courts.

Over the past year and a half, the Security Council has passed several resolutions on piracy in the Horn of Africa and authorized countries to use military force to pursue pirates in cooperation with Somalia’s transitional government. Russia, Japan, the European Union and others have sent naval forces to the region to combat piracy. But Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said earlier this month that “so far the results have not been entirely satisfactory” because of what he called a “weak link” in legal processes.

The council’s resolution praised countries that had changed their domestic laws to criminalize piracy but noted “with concern” that others did not have such provisions. It called on all countries to do so. Eleven suspected pirates from Somalia have been brought to the United States to face piracy and other charges for attacks on two US Navy ships off the coast of Africa, the US Justice Department said last week. Kenya has also prosecuted pirates, an effort praised by the council’s resolution, which urged Nairobi to continue to do so, “while acknowledging the difficulties Kenya encounters in this regard.” Prosecutions have also been launched in France and the Netherlands.