Thursday, May 14, 2009

Making a criminal case against pirates

While discussions abound about the intelligence-gathering aspects of pirate gangs and whether they're all working together - which, in my mind, is doubtful - I'd like to return to an earlier issue: what to do with captured suspects.

We've seen another incident this week in which Spanish naval authorities opted to hand over some suspects to Kenyan authorities (see here), and American and South Korean forces have captured 17 others (see here). What will happen as a result of the latter incident is still uncertain, but it's not unlikely the Somalis will be turned over to Kenyan authorities.

There is a certain amount of anger that lingers in some quarters about the apparent lack of follow-through on the part of various nations to bring suspected pirates before the judicial system and prosecute them for their actions. After all, why bother capturing pirates if we're not going to incarcerate them if proven guilty of their crimes?

Welcome to the quagmire of addressing an age-old criminal endeavor in the modern era. We no longer hang pirates from the yardarm arbitrarily or execute them summarily. In fact, we haven't done either - in Western nations - for a couple of hundred years. We have relied, instead, on due process and the definitive proof of guilt, a benchmark of an advanced, civilized society. So for those advocating a "hang 'em high" position for pirates, I say settle down. We are better than that.

Okay, but what do we do? Well, we shouldn't rely on naval forces to be criminal investigators, for one. Those sailors and marines working in the seas off the Horn of Africa are not police officers - they are warriors. That's what we've trained them to do. Their job descriptions do not include gathering evidence for a criminal investigation. We should expect them to fulfill the obligations of warriors. (I recall my brother's thoughts after his first tour of duty on a UN peacekeeping mission: "The most useless six months in my career.")

So why not emplace individuals with more criminal investigation aboard warships in the region? My Canadian colleague Patrick Lennox has put forth just an idea in a recent paper (see here), suggesting that Canadian authorities consider putting RCMP (our famous 'Mounties') teams on our warships. They're better equipped to gather evidence for a criminal prosecution than most naval elements. We've done this before, in Canada, putting RCMP teams on Coast Guard ships to deal with various domestic issues. Besides, every nation with warships in the region has criminal investigation divisions capable of doing likewise, with personnel better able to put together the means to better prosecute suspected pirates.

This is not in any way a slight at the naval forces in the region, merely a suggestion to augment their operational capabilities. Remember that piracy is, in legal terms, a national issue, up to individual nations to deal with. The better prepared we are to deal with it the more effective we are.

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