As the Maersk Alabama sails to Mombasa and the USS Bainbridge keeps an eye on the pirates holding Captain Richard Phillips in a lifeboat, there is quite a bit of talk online and on air about the incident, and what to do about things. Many of the comments posted on media websites seem to involve a lot of "Let's go get the pirates with our guns" sort of sensibility, a reflection of the frustrations being felt. The number of postings that suggest putting cannons or other heavy weaponry aboard merchant vessels is staggering. But this isn't going to happen and reveals a lack of understanding about civilian mariners' lives at sea and the various national laws that prevent the arming of merchant vessels.
Then there are the comments posted by would-be experts positing their theories on what's caused piracy to become so endemic off the Horn of Africa and how the law could be applied. Many of these 'legal perspectives' are misguided, or just wrong, and a number otherwise smart people seem to be rushing to provide their own perspectives on the situation without understanding the broader picture.
For instance, there have been a number of sources that consider the Maersk Alabama incident to be an indication that piracy off East Africa is escalating. This appears to be based on the fact that it was an American-flagged vessel with American crew that was attacked. I, however, don't see it in that manner. The Alabama fell victim to a continuing threat that has seen five other vessels recently hijacked. An escalation is when pirates attack a new type of vessel - such as a cruise ship, a supertanker or a vessel laden with munitions and weaponry - or when mariners are injured or killed, or when piracy becomes a source of funding for terrorists. Box ships have been attacked before (and probably will be again), but I seriously doubt the pirates who boarded the Alabama knew the crew was American or targeted them purely because of their nationality.
On the positive side of all these discussions is the growing understanding that to effectively deal with piracy in the region, we need to deal with Somalia itself. Paul Reynolds, BBC News website's world affairs correspondent, has written a piece that suggests adopting a 19th Century approach to things, when gunboat diplomacy was a norm. He quotes Lord Palmerston, the British Foreign Secretary, who said, in 1841, "Taking a wasps' nest...is more effective than catching the wasps one by one." Right now that's what all those naval vessels are doing: swatting at individual wasps, so to speak.
(Reynolds also seems to imply in his piece that what's needed are naval commanders more willing to bend the rules when engaging pirates, much like Commodore Stephen Decatur did when the U.S. was battling Barbary Pirates in 1815. He also states that convoys are currently in use for aid vessels going to Kenya and Somalia, which is not completely correct. A warship shadowing a merchant vessel carrying food aid from Mombasa to Somalia doesn't really qualify as a convoy.)
Over at National Review Online, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey posted a short piece that points out the reluctance of nations to root out the Somali pirate lairs ashore. This is the most effective way to suppress piracy, and has worked over the centuries. However, the likelihood that troops from the U.S. will go ashore in Somalia seems remote, at this stage (to say nothing of forces from Canada, Britain or France). And the African Union troops that have been deployed have proven virtually useless. But without a stabilizing force that is robust in its mandate and accompanied by the suitable political and economic clout to re-build Somalia's vacant infrastructures, the threat of continued violence - both at sea and on land - will continue.
I am, however, not advocating the wholesale invasion of Somalia by foreign troops; it's a far more complex situation than that. Indeed, the most effective stabilizing force would be one that is Somali in origin, not foreign. An excellent look at the domestic situation in Somalia was written last month by Graham Cooke for The Diplomat. Entitled "The Impact of Somali Piracy", it details the perspectives of a number of experts, and looks at the risks created by using force against the Somali pirates, as well as the risks of doing nothing. It also explores the potential threats posed by Islamists in Somalia, and their links to pirate gangs.
If this all seems complicated, it's because it is. But as Chatham House's Roger Middleton is quoted in The Diplomat piece, "[O]ne option the international community does not have is to ignore the problem."
Maersk Alabama update:
Bloomberg is reporting that reinforcements have set out from Somalia to provide some sort of assistance to their pirate brethren who are holding Capt. Phillips hostage. Hope they have enough fuel for the trip there and back, though one has to wonder whether they'll even get close to the scene, what with naval vessels in the area.
Also, Reuters reports that the U.N. special representative for Somalia wants the international community to do more to trace the money trail used by pirates in order to quash their financial backers.
Below is today's update of attacks off Somalia from NATO: