Maritime piracy: a sustainable global solution.

Author:Williams, Paul R.
Position::End Game: An International Conference on Combating Maritime Piracy

Maritime piracy is a complex transnational security concern characterized by emerging international finance operations and organization, an oversupply of labor, and a low cost of market entry. This article provides a realistic picture of the driving forces behind maritime piracy in areas such as Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Aden, and the Gulf of Guinea. By examining some of the assumptions and proposed solutions in counter-piracy literature and policy, this article exposes some piracy illusions and proposes a sustainable, global response that addresses the persistent threat of modern maritime piracy. Today's manifold piracy challenges call for a multifaceted approach. Accordingly, this article sets forth a sustainable remedy that incorporates onboard security, an international tribunal to coordinate and secure the prosecutions of pirate organizers and financiers, and a set of policies that allows private industry to innovate while internalizing a greater portion of the political, legal, and economic costs of the shipping industry.

CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. RIGHTING THE SHIP: CLARIFYING MISCONCEPTIONS OF PIRACY'S CAUSES AND CURES A. Piracy: An Expansive View B. The Development Illusion C. The State Navies Illusion D. The Private Security Personnel Illusion, or Fear of a "Blackwater Moment" E. The Foot Soldier Illusion F. The Domestic Prosecutions Illusion G. The Existing International Courts Illusion H. The Private Sector Illusion III. A SUSTAINABLE, GLOBAL SOLUTION A. Defensive Personnel on Ships B. An International Piracy Court C. Market Solutions IV. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

Articles on maritime piracy often begin by setting a rich scene, calling to mind the swarthy buccaneers of piracy's golden age, describing the new breed of AK-47-toting Somali pirates, or by laying out some truly sensational statistics. Freighted as the subject is by tales of romance and adventure, yardarm hangings, and faith slavery, articles on piracy naturally lend themselves to dramatic hooks and entertaining anecdotes. Clever titles abound. (1) The problem of global piracy, however, is both more serious and less exciting than these anecdotes suggest, and if we are to take a clear-eyed assessment of the issue, then it behooves us to get an accurate, global context before we begin to address the problem.

Despite the recent media attention to maritime piracy, including a forthcoming blockbuster about the MV Maersk Alabama hijacking starring Tom Hanks, the hype surrounding contemporary maritime piracy has been somewhat overblown. Indeed, incidents of maritime piracy have declined sharply in recent years. In 2012, 297 ships were attacked: 174 of those ships were boarded, and only 28 were successfully taken. (2) Those numbers are down from 439 attacks with 45 ships taken in 2011, (3) and 445 attacks and 53 hijackings at global piracy's peak in 2010. (4) Given the many thousands of ships that transit the 140 million square miles of open ocean every year, the odds of any one being attacked are obviously very low. Indeed, even in the highly pirated waters off the coast of Somalia, where 40 percent of all pirate attacks occur, the odds of a ship getting hijacked are estimated to be only between 1 in 750 and 1 in 1,100. (5) Nevertheless, the annual cost of piracy to the global economy is estimated to be upwards of $18 billion. (6)

And yet, despite the recent downturn in pirate attacks, it is becoming increasingly clear that current efforts are not likely to be successful at putting an end to the global maritime piracy problem any time soon. (7) Ninety percent of international trade moves by sea, including 60 percent of the world's crude oil, (8) a figure that is only likely to increase in the coming years. (9) Moreover, just as the bulk of pirate activity shifted from Southeast Asia to the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Guinea, piracy continues to spread across the globe. Pirate attacks are on the rise in the oil rich, security poor coast of West Africa, where understaffed law enforcement balks at confronting pirates with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). (10) In fact, the number of ships attacked off the coast of West Africa recently surpassed the number of attacks off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. (11) However, West Africa is not the only area that is seeing an increase in pirate activity. Piracy is on the rise everywhere from Indonesia to Peru, Singapore, and Bangladesh. (12)

A few elements of maritime piracy have made the profession attractive across the centuries and continents: entry into the market is easy, start-up costs are low, and the potential returns are high. Today, pirate revenues are at an all-time high, whether in the form of ransoms in the Gulf of Aden or black market oil sales in the Gulf of Guinea. Start-up costs are also at an all-time low; all one really needs to become a pirate is a skiff, some sailors, and probably some basic gear, all of which is mass produced and readily available (an AK-47 rifle sells between $100 and $200 in Somalia, (13) and cutlasses, grappling hooks, ladders, etc. are substantially cheaper). Moreover, mechanisms of community finance, like the "pirate stock exchange" in Haradhere, Somalia, put mounting a small-time pirate expedition within the hands of any enterprising fisherman. (14) Given the well-publicized successes of Southeast Asian and Somali pirates, it should not be surprising that poor criminals from Bangladesh to Nigeria are getting into the business. (15)

The modus operandi of maritime pirates--be they Nigerian, Somali, or Indonesian--has persisted more-or-less unchanged from the days of Barbarossa and Ned Low. (16) What does present a new and particularly difficult challenge for the counter-piracy community, however, is the transnational business model of some of today's pirate organizations. Maritime piracy has evolved from an essentially localized phenomenon of ad hoc banditry conducted by local criminals to one funded by the global networks of transnational organized crime. (17) Never before has it been so easy to transfer start-up funds and profits across seas and national boundaries. Unlike the pieces of eight of yesteryear, today's pirate gains come in the form of cash or black market goods, which are quickly converted to cash, and these funds quickly disappear into the world's formal and informal banking networks. (18) Further complicating the issue, the sources of transnational pirate finance and organization have become deeply intertwined with legitimate and criminal forms of private enterprise. (19) These organizations are capable of funding sophisticated piracy operations from hundreds or thousands of miles away. (20) Accordingly, the most successful of the localized counter-piracy efforts have merely pushed the pirates and their financiers into other waters. (21)

Although maritime piracy is, as U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen recognized, a "transnational security challenge," the solutions offered tend to be localized in scope. (22) To be sure, localized solutions to piracy have been effective in tamping down or eliminating maritime piracy in areas such as the Strait of Malacca and the Caribbean, though the emergence of pirates in other shipping lanes supports the rather self-evident conclusion that localized solutions have not addressed the problem of piracy worldwide. (23) The millions of miles of underdeveloped coastline and open ocean will continue to permit the launching of pirate attacks, and so long as there are poor men along these shorelines, there will be a ready supply of pirate labor. Thus the implication of the new transnational paradigm--characterized by transnational networks of finance and organization, the oversupply of pirate labor, and the ease of market entry--is that successful localized strategies will ultimately fall short of addressing what is essentially a global problem. (24)

A global problem calls for a global solution. Such a solution, moreover, must be sustainable in the long-term, since pirates are always poised to return to their trade if enforcement efforts fade. The solutions offered in the current piracy literature, however, either fail to account for the global nature of modern maritime piracy, are politically and economically unsustainable, or both. This article will proceed by clarifying some operative misconceptions and illusions in the current counter-piracy literature in order to offer a sustainable, global solution to maritime piracy that focuses both on deterrence at the point of attack and disruption of transnational networks of organization and finance. This top-down, bottom-up approach has three fundamental components: (1) using private security on ships to raise the cost of starting a successful pirate expedition to a level beyond the reach of the littoral world's fishermen and small time gangsters; (2) establishing an international piracy court to cut off the sources of funding that are required to mount a successful pirate expedition given the raised start-up costs; and (3) allowing private industry the space to innovate and experiment with effective deterrence techniques while holding industry responsible for its share of the political, legal, and economic costs of those efforts.


    1. Piracy: An Expansive View

      Before addressing the proposed solutions to the problem of maritime piracy, it is important to understand exactly what that problem is. The international law definition of maritime piracy, as codified in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is an "illegal act[] of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends" beyond a state's twelve-mile territorial waters. (25) Most incidents of depredation for private ends at sea, however, take place within a state's territorial waters and therefore do not qualify as piracy in this technical sense. (26) Although the UNCLOS definition may...

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