Global Ethics Corner: Prosecuting Pirates: Enforcing the Rule of Law at Sea

Jul 20, 2012

With Somali piracy surging over the last four years, the UN is calling for travel and financial sanctions on senior pirate leaders. Is this an effective way to punish the ringleaders or could it make piracy more violent? Should the focus, instead, be on the underlying problems in Somalia?

Somali piracy has surged over the last four years. In 2011 alone, pirates operating in the Gulf of Aden cost the global economy more than 7 billion dollars. The international community has responded by sending naval ships to the region. Dozens of national navies now coordinate to protect shipping routes. The UN also has gotten involved—passing Security Council resolutions and issuing reports on piracy.

The results? Disappointing. There are fewer successful Somali pirate attacks, but pirate ransoms have skyrocketed. They now charge five times what they did a few years ago to release a hijacked vessel. And while low-level pirates are often captured, pirate leaders act with impunity. Somali pirate kingpins appear to be diversifying their revenue streams by turning to land-based kidnappings and selling services as so-called "counter-piracy experts."

That's why the UN is calling for targeted travel and financial sanctions on senior pirate leaders.

But some countries worry sanctions would make piracy more violent. Britain argues that by making it more difficult to meet pirate demands quickly, UN sanctions could imperil British hostages.

Some experts warn that it is ransom payments that make piracy such a rewarding business. Moreover, they say British opposition to UN sanctions is rooted less in its concern for hostage safety, than in the lobbying efforts of maritime security firms, which indirectly profit from a booming pirate trade. Still others argue the only way to diminish piracy is to improve the political and economic climate in the failed state of Somalia, creating legitimate sources of income.

The dilemma has clear ethical connotations. Will sanctions make piracy more violent? Will they help deter piracy, by punishing the ringleaders? Or should the international community be focusing on the underlying problems in Somalia?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

"Somali pirate kingpins enjoy 'impunity' - U.N. experts," Reuters, July 18, 2012

James Pattison, "The War on Somali Piracy," Ethics & International Affairs, May 31, 2012

Eugene Kontorovich, "The Piracy Prosecution Paradox Political and Procedural Problems with Enforcing Order on the High Seas," Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, June 5, 2012

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:
Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric L. Beauregard/U.S. Navy [also for picture 10]
Photographer's Mate 1st Class Bart Bauer/U.S. Navy
Pete Souza/White House
Mass communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/U.S. Navy [also for pictures 6 and 9]
Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet/U.S. Navy
Karine Langlois/International Maritime Organization
Mattias Gugel/Medill
Stuart Price/UN [also for picture 13]
Cassandra Thompson/U.S. Navy

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