[By Charli Carpenter. Part of the series “Global Challenges in 2030” (Goldstein & Pevehouse), January 2010.]
Forget Johnny Depp. Real-life maritime piracy is no laughing matter. According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), 78 vessels were boarded and 39 hijacked worldwide in the first half of 2009—an increase of nearly double from the previous year. Unlike the pirates of yore, today’s sea bandits use satellite technology to track their prey; sneak up alongside ships in speedboats; are armed with machine guns, rocket launchers, and grenades; and board vessels with grappling irons. Once aboard, pirates plunder or ransom cargo and terrorize crews.
All kinds of ships—yachts, freighters, cruise ships, supertankers—fall victim to attack. In 2008, a Ukrainian cargo ship laden with Russian tanks, ammunition, and other military equipment was captured by pirates and later ransomed for $3.2 million. Humanitarian shipments to famine-ravaged lands are favorite targets off the Horn of Africa, meaning piracy is not just bad news for maritime crews and arms merchants but also for hungry civilians—not to mention the entire system of international trade, since 90 percent of what consumers use travels by water. And there are significant concerns about the connections between piracy and international terrorism.
Commentators have different views as to what drives this problem: grinding poverty that makes piracy look like easy money, technological changes that make it easy for non-state actors to take on states and corporations, the collapse of state governance in many parts of the world. But an important contributing factor is the simple lack of global coordination to address the problem. States are responsible for policing their coastlines, but much piracy occurs on the high seas—outside of any one state’s jurisdiction. Because the oceans are a radically transnational, ungoverned space, no one state has the power or authority to quell piracy on its own.
Governments acting in concert in specific contexts have shown that maritime piracy can be controlled. Four years ago, the Straits of Malacca were the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world. Then a coordination regime between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore reduced piracy markedly. But piracy hotspots move. At the same time that piracy declined in South Asia, it spiked off the Horn of Africa as marauders sought a more lawless region to ply their
trade. A coalition of 45 nations is now policing East Africa. But Somalia is not the only hotspot today: piracy remains a problem in South Asia and off the
coast of Nigeria.
Ultimately, as with other global problems, a global response is required. Unfortunately, no international organization exists whose responsibility is to protect shipping lanes globally or punish offenders once caught. The UN has no global police force, and was primarily designed to prevent territorial aggression among middle powers, not solve transnational security threats. In fact, the UN Charter is part of the problem: ships on the high seas cannot legally pursue pirate boats into the territorial waters of sovereign countries. On a case-by-case basis, the UN Security Council can authorize exceptions to this rule, but this approach has not worked well in Somalia, partly because governments also need to be required to do the actual policing. And Security Council resolutions regarding Somalia cannot be transplanted to other contexts.
The international community is also missing global rules about how to punish or deter piracy. As a crime of universal jurisdiction, piracy on the high seas is in theory punishable by any state that captures a pirate. But such trials are rare: no country wants to set a precedent for trying pirates in domestic courts, and be faced with a backlog from others bringing their own captured pirates to its jurisdiction. The International Criminal Court offers a potential venue for trying and punishing pirates, but at present its jurisdiction includes only the other universal jurisdiction crimes—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
Given this political and legal vacuum, shippers are fending for themselves these days with acoustic weapons and private security personnel, in some cases arming merchant crews in their own self-defense. But these remain band-aid solutions—and they create additional risks to human life and maritime security. Ultimately, action at the global level is necessary to protect shipping lanes and empower legitimate international actors to stamp out piracy.
International institutions have been created to solve other global problems: nuclear proliferation, ozone depletion, pandemic disease. What might a “regime” for combating piracy look like? Whatever the means chosen, governments will need to seriously rethink the governance of the ocean over the next two decades if they are to stem the rising tide of high seas brigandry.
CHARLI CARPENTER teaches international relations at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and blogs about war law and human security issues at Duck of Minerva and Current Intelligence. She is the author of Innocent Women and Children: Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate Publishing, 2006).