Thursday, March 5, 2009

Piracy & State Weakness

Over at there is an article by William Lind entitled, "A Barometer of Order." Lind argues that the failure of states to deal with piracy, specifically Somali piracy, is an indication of state weakness and of a breakdown in international order. In his words
So little do the international elites who now rule all but a handful of states – the administrators of Brave New World – believe in the state that they cannot even hang pirates. They have the souls, not of leaders or governors, but of petty functionaries.
Although Lind is interesting reading, I often disagree with him, at least in part. Lind presents the historical scenario for cleaning up piracy
International ships and aircraft hunt down and sink the pirates' vessels at sea. (As in the 17th and 18th centuries, there are very few pirate "ships;" most pirates operate from open boats, now as then.) Any ship taken by pirates is immediately re-taken by some state's navy or Marines. Captured pirates are hanged from the nearest yardarm, without trial, as common law allows. Ports out of which pirates frequently sail, such as Eyl, are bombarded, and any likely pirate craft are destroyed.
I agree, this could be done, and it would be effective. But I find his reasoning for why it isn't done wholly unconvincing.

We refuse to take effective action against pirates not because of some lack of belief in the state, as Lind maintains, but instead because of excessive humanitarianism and blind legalism. The West has elevated humanitarian concerns to the point where they overrule basic common sense. We can't hang pirates because most western states don't even believe in capital punishment. Never mind that hanging pirates has long been a highly effective way of eliminating them. We can't do it because its just too barbaric for our delicate sensibilities. Where are we going to try them? Surely they need legal representation. What about their "rights"? The idea of just summarily executing people captured in the act of piracy -- even though it makes perfect sense and has for a couple thousand years -- is just too harsh to contemplate. And even non-Western states, like Russia and China, fear the condemnation of the West.

Bombarding pirate ports is another highly effective traditional counter to piracy, as Lind writes. It reduces the profit of piracy, raises the risks, and turns the inhabitants -- who don't like being blown up or rendered homeless -- against the pirates. It demonstrates quite effectively to port dwellers why it isn't a good idea to allow pirate bases in your neighborhood. Even the most primitive barbaric types tend to get the message after the shells start raining down. But of course we can't bombard ports. Innocent people might be killed, and we certainly can't risk that. Instead we have the ridiculous spectacle of warships from multiple countries -- a few of which could wipe out Somalian piracy entirely given the will to do so-- patrolling and trying to catch pirates, unsure what to do with them when they succeed. 

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