Global Ethics Corner: Defeating Piracy

Friday, March 4, 2011

In March 2011, there were over 50 vessels and 800 people held hostage by Somali pirates.

Normally hostages and vessels are ransomed. Pirates have extorted over $100 million.

The situation is ideal for extortion. The window for decisive action is narrow. Current international law allows pirates to be arrested only when caught in the act. Once pirated, the crews' lives, the cargo, and the vessel are at risk if rescue is attempted.

A long-term revision of international law may allow arrests for cruising far offshore with weapons, lots of fuel, and limited fishing capacity.

But in the short-term, why not imitate Jefferson's successful action with the Barbary Pirates in 1801: blockade and attack their bases? This seems untenable given American engagements elsewhere; the diffuse, amoeba-like structure of pirate organizations; and the failed Somali state.

Staging rescues, treating pirates individually as hostile combatants, and attacking cruisers might eliminate piracy.

Piracy, however, is also a business model and would diminish if costs outweighed rewards. Owners' have preferred to pay ransom and higher insurance rates, waiting an average six months to get crews and vessels back.

The ethical questions are clear. Who has the right to risk the lives of innocent crews? Should inactive cruisers be assumed innocent? Should international law evolve to adapt to new circumstances?

What would you do? Attack, negotiate, seek legal remedies, or continue to make the best of a terrible situation?

By William Vocke

For more information see:

Jeffery Gettleman, "Suddenly, a Rise in Piracy's Price," The New York Times, February 26, 2011.

Photo Credits in order of Appearance:

Jason R. Zalasky/ U.S. Navy

Eric L. Beauregard/ U.S. Navy
Eric L. Beauregard/ U.S. Navy
Eric L. Beauregard/ U.S. Navy
Jason R. Zalasky/ U.S. Navy
Charles Waterhouse/ U.S. Marines
Cassandra Thompson/ U.S. Navy
Jason R. Zalasky/ U.S. Navy
Michael Sandberg/ U.S. Navy
Jason R. Zalasky/ U.S. Navy
Bart Bauer/ U.S. Navy
Michael Junge/ U.S. Navy
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